If you love language, books, the theater and, especially, the plays of William Shakespeare, The Book of Will renders a lively and inventive story of how Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends saved his plays from oblivion and—possibly worse—dismal misquotation, rampant misrepresentation, and downright theft. Lauren Gunderson’s play had its New Mexico premiere at the Adobe Theater last weekend and The Book of Will proves to be an engaging story about writing, acting, and even the publishing business.
John Heminges (Philip J. Shortell) and Henry Condell (Harry Zimmerman) were actors at The Globe Theatre and friends of Shakespeare who undertook the printing of what would become the First Folio. Act I is devoted to the reluctance of Heminges to shoulder this burden, and an understanding of the problems facing both men and their cohorts before the task can even get underway.
Act I introduces us to some engaging characters from history: Richard Burbage (Tim Riley), a preeminent actor of his time, a member of the King’s Men as were Heminges and Condell; Ralph Crane (Joel Miller), the scribe who hand copied several of Shakespeare’s major plays and helped to edit the folio; Ben Jonson (Tim Crofton), the poet laureate who wrote a glowing preface to the First Folio; and Anne Hathaway Shakespeare (Carolyn R. Ward), the great man’s widow.
Act I also deals in death, the ultimate deadline. Shakespeare died in 1616 and the First Folio was published in 1623. In between, scripts were lost to time, and actors like Burbage, Heminges and Condell relied on their memories of the roles they had played and the lines they had recited. In the play, this small band of collaborators are only too aware of the press of time against the enormity of their project.
Shortell and Zimmerman as Heminges and Condell portray a believably long and warm friendship, and their spouses (Laira Magnusson as Elizabeth Condell; Linda Williams as Rebecca Heminges) are supportive and fully committed to the undertaking. The engaging Ronda Lewis as Alice Heminges has a special role as her father’s chief cheerleader and tavern keeper. When the handsome Isaac Jaggard (Jack Jackson) appears and they begin to flirt, Shortell’s consistent efforts to keep them separated provide comic relief.
Isaac is the son of William Jaggard (Timothy J. Kupjack), a printshop owner whose shady reputation precedes him. But when he offers to obtain the rights to the plays and publish the edited manuscript, the group must trust him, adding more tension to the plot. Director Brian Hansen has a high time with the actual stop-and-go printing of the folio, but his staging of the process is smooth and evocative. Marcus Ivey as the pressman greatly adds to the fun.
Costume Designer Sophia Bernal did a splendid job, and I always find the lighting design of Shannon Flynn to be just what the Adobe stage needs.
Director Hansen had his hands full with this boisterous play and large cast, yet found the extra energy to create the clever set design that stands in for the Globe Tavern, the Globe Theatre, the print shop, and all other necessary venues. I want what he’s imbibing.
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others” (from Pericles). Shakespeare’s works are woven into our lives and our speech, thanks to his hardworking friends. And thanks to playwright Gunderson and director Hansen, the final scene will send you to English Major Heaven.
-Stephanie Hainsfurther publishes ABQArts.com.
Photo of Harry Zimmerman as Henry Condell by Ryan Dobbs.