Any lit major, actor, director or English teacher—and I’m four for four in that count—will tell you without a moment’s hesitation that the most important literary figure in Western history is the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, a man we don’t know all that much about but whose legacy includes some 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and various other poems and apocrypha. But the only reason that we can know this is the fact that, though it had never happened in his lifetime, after his death his plays were gathered together and published. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, in fact, all of the archived copies of his work in his own hand went up in flames with the Globe Theatre and what was left were mostly a combination of unauthorized (and often very incorrect) quartos and “sides”—the lines spoken by a given actor and his cues. The story of how these random pieces of copy, scattered all over London, were gathered together, filtered, and eventually became the First Folio is the story that is told in Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will. Based on real events but coming from the author’s imagination, the play focuses on the simple fact that, without his dedicated band of friends, the world would have utterly forgotten about William Shakespeare.
By the time of the play’s opening, a mere three years after his death in 1616, his plays were already being bastardized across the city and the country in poorly copied versions hastily written while watching The King’s Men perform. Thus you end up with a “To be or not to be” speech that, as the play demonstrates, begins,
To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To die, to sleep, is that all? I all:
No, to sleep, to dream, I marry there it goes.
It does not get better from there. Since this is about as far from the original as the Royal Nonesuch Shakespearean monologue scene in Huckleberry Finn in which the con men pretend to be famous British actors to fleece the rubes along the Mississippi, it is clear that the plays as the Bard intended were halfway to disappearing already. The play makes the point that, even among the King’s Men, only Richard Burbage (a brilliant Austin Tichenor of Reduced Shakespeare Company fame) actually knows all of the plays by heart, and when he dies it suddenly occurs to the only two remaining original company members—Henry Condell (Gregory Linington) and John Heminges (Jim Ortlieb)—that if someone doesn’t record all of these plays, they’ll be gone. “Publish or vanish,” they say in a much more literal version of the “publish or perish” motto found in academia today. In fact, it’s worse: if you “perish,” someone will likely recall you; if you vanish, though—leaving no trace behind—the world is quick to forget.
From this point, the focus of the play becomes getting the book published, and there are a lot of issues connected to determining who has publishing rights, whether they can find all of the plays, whether they can afford the paper, etc., and that all sounds terribly dry, but the history part of this play can only work because we are able to enjoy getting to know the characters that Gunderson creates for us, starting with the last King’s Men. Tichenor’s Burbage is a hoot as he drunkenly assaults the actor responsible for that horrific Hamlet with words, hammering him with an impromptu mashup of lines from several different plays that fold together perfectly into a single insulting speech. He is so alive and hilarious that it is a shame that it is his death that must be the catalyst for the play’s action.
On the other hand, he is so dominant a character that, were he to remain, Linington’s Condell and Ortlieb’s Heminges may not have had the chance to shine on their own, and they deserved it. Linington has what would seem to be the simpler role; his greatest conflict is whether or not Pericles, his favorite play, will be in the Folio—spoiler alert: it isn’t. He is wonderful to watch as he manipulates his friend (who is uncertain of proceeding) into continuing their focus and in his loving relationship with his wife Elizabeth (McKinley Carter, whose performance keeps him grounded and also plays opposite him as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, Emelia Lanier). Ortlieb is put through more of a wringer. The lone holdout against the “impossible” task of creating the Folio, he finds himself pressured from all sides, even from his wife (Rengin Altay) and his daughter Alice (Dana Black). In the second act, faced with far more difficult situations than the publishing of a manuscript, Ortlieb proves a very sympathetic actor; we can feel every ounce of his emotion.
While Altay has some fine moments as Rebecca Heminges, including a beautiful late conversation with her husband in which she insists that, no matter what, he has to focus on the book, it is Black’s Alice that steals the show in almost every one of her scenes. Genuine, honest, caustic when she needs to be (and as a barmaid that is often enough), tender to her father, and absolutely dedicated to the plays of a man who gave more brilliant roles to women than anyone else she knows—maybe she has a little bit of precocious feminist in her too?—Black gives Alice the full range of emotions. And I do mean the full range: she even finds herself falling for the handsome young son (Luigi Sottile) of the unscrupulous publisher William Jaggard (Tichenor again, having way more fun than should be allowed) the actors are forced to deal with.
Speaking of scene stealers, I’d be remiss not to mention William Dick, whose Ben Jonson—a longtime Shakespearean rival—is full of piss and vinegar (and beer) for much of the play, angry especially at Jaggard, but is able to find it in him to pen tender words for the epigraph of the Folio. Jonson is long-winded and self-aggrandizing, but he knows the loss of the Bard was a heavy toll on the theatre world. (His words alone, from someone who knew and fought with Shakespeare for their entire careers, ought to be enough to end all of the blather about Shakespeare not being the true author of his plays. You certainly can’t watch The Book of Will and believe that nonsense.)
To Gunderson’s credit, though, she keeps her eyes on the ball. This play, though it definitely hints of a relationship to come between Alice and young Isaac, doesn’t turn into Shakespeare in Love, Jr. Nor does it spend too much time on the battle between Isaac and his aging, blind, dastardly father for the soul of their publishing house (though Sottile is excellent when it does go there). Its central objective is important enough, and as it goes on the audience gets totally caught up in the story of the publication of what may have been the most important literary book ever published. And what is completely remarkable is that we all know that the book was published, so there is no real suspense, but the play works anyway.
This is due to a great script, of course, and great performances, but it also must be said that this play had a great production. Jessica Thebus, a very experienced director who has, among her credits, last year’s Northlight production of Gunderson’s Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, is a perfect choice to elicit all of these fine performances and to keep this show moving at a perfect pace. A final scene, taking place at the home of Shakespeare’s widow Anne Hathaway, is simply brilliant. And Janice Pytel’s costumes are also perfect: just the right touch of flair in the right moments with the right people. She evokes daily life in the 17th Century beautifully. Paul Toben’s lighting and Rick Sims’ music and sound are both exemplary, and the whole thing plays out on a two-story set designed by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod that manages to evoke a tavern, the Globe Theatre, and even the entry hall of an upper-class mansion.
The Book of Will is wonderful entertainment. It is richly funny and warm in its emotions while it tells a tale that we all knew had to have happened but had no clue about just how. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare said in Alice’s favorite play As You Like It. Hasten thee to Northlight’s, else thou wilt miss something most marvelous.
The Book of Will is now playing at Northlight Theatre,9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie, until December 17. Performance dates and times vary; check website. Tickets are $40 and are available from Northlight Theatre. Half-price tickets are available. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member