Monday, November 20, 2017

To See or Not to See: Either Way, Lauren Gunderson's 'The Book of Will' Makes One Glad Shakespeare's Plays Continue To Be -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Book of Will
by Lauren Gunderson
directed by Jessica Thebus
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru December 17

In an acute sense, I am far from the world's biggest Shakespeare fan.

Quite honestly, I often have trouble following--and/or staying focused on--his plays, due to the poetic language, Elizabethan tongue, elaborate plots and multitude of characters, though I mean this far more as self-indictment than criticism.

I have seen several of Sir William's plays, and feel it quite valuable, even vital, to have done so, but my enjoyment typically tends to be academically appreciative rather then emotionally embracing. (This might be heresy to staunch Shakespeareans, but I've found modern-dress productions have considerably aided my grasp.)

Still, given how much I love writing, the poetic, playwriting and theater arts, creativity of all kinds and everything William Shakespeare's plays have directly and indirectly influenced--and, despite the above, I very much concur with his esteem, exaltation and importance--it's hard to imagine the world, and my life, if Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and most other of his masterworks had been lost to history shortly after Will's death in 1616 (at just 52).

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
As deeply ingrained as Shakespeare is in our consciousness as a genius, genre and gestalt--or should be; I recently had a debate with someone about the Bard's contemporary scholastic relevance or lack thereof--this hardly sounds plausible.

Or a bit like saying, what if air and water didn't exist?

But the truth seems to be--and the new play, The Book of Will, is based largely on real events--that until the First Folio was published in 1623, only some of Shakespeare's plays had ever been printed, most with the text largely incomplete or inaccurate.

Directed at Northlight by Jessica Thebus, The Book of Will is written by Lauren Gunderson, who at the age of 35 stands as today's most produced playwright in America not named William Shakespeare. (I'm sorry to have missed Gunderson's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley last year at Northlight; it recently earned a Jeff Award for Best New Play.)

Clearly based on detailed historical research as well as considerable imagination, the inventive play chronicles the efforts of Shakespeare's comrades in the King's Men acting troupe and key associates--including wives, daughters, printers and a scrivener--to compile haphazard iterations of his works into a qualitative collection titled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, which modern scholars refer to as the First Folio.

As the play begins, three of the King's Men--Richard Burbage (Austin Tichenor), Henry Condell (Gregory Linington) and John Heminges (Jim Ortlieb), all terrifically personified--bemoan a theater troupe's butchering of Hamlet as they know it, due to the reliance on pirated text such as that spuriously recorded in the "bad quarto."

At this point, it should be pretty clear where this leads, and fine characterizations of Heminges' daughter Alice (Dana Black; the role itself is something of a fictionalized composite), wife Rebecca (Rengin Altay) and Cordell's wife Elizabeth (McKinley Carter, fresh from Victory Gardens' excellent production of Fun Home), allow for The Book of Will to explore personal matters providing some breadth beyond the fortuitous discovery of working scripts, search for a suitable printer and repeated concerns about financial shortages.

Yet I found a familial tragedy that occupies a sizable portion of Act Two to be a bit too far beyond the parameters of Act One's narrative for it to fit in smoothly, and the play's last 10 minutes added unnecessary pathos past what should have been a perfectly apt ending.

While I was happy to learn about the preserving of Shakespeare's plays for history, and several of those pivotal to this--including scrivener turned editor Ralph Crane (Thomas J. Cox), father & son printers William & Isaac Jaggard (Austin Tichenor & Luigi Sottile) and fellow writer Ben Jonson (William Dick)--The Book of Will seems to be missing something.

Partly this is intangible, as despite a beguiling premise there just wasn't enough to make me care deeply across 2+ hours--or afterwards--beyond the core facts.

Click to enlarge
But conceivably, I also would have liked for Sir William himself to figure into this play.

Yes, The Book of Will takes place after Shakespeare's death, and Gunderson is clearly a shrewd enough writer to have considered or tried various possibilities, so maybe this really wouldn't work.

But as this is a play "about Shakespeare" and there are multiple scenes involving the King's Men drinking--within an attractive set by Richard & Jacqueline Pernod--perhaps in a flashback or hallucination the Bard could join his buddies at the bar, allowing the audience to get a better sense of Sir Will beyond the classroom factoids.

An illuminating lobby display shares "10 Things You Didn't Know About William Shakespeare," and much as The Book of Will is enlightening in revealing a reality of which I was clueless, I can't help but imagine that a characterization of Shakespeare might also have elucidated richly.

Who knows? I expect audiences should sufficiently enjoy The Book of Will, especially individuals with a proclivity toward Shakespeare and his legend.

But other than some briefly--but rather nicely, particularly by Tichenor as Burbage--recited passages from Hamlet and other works, there isn't a whole lot of or about Shakespeare in this play.

Certainly it does a nice job of celebrating those who ensured his work, and legacy, would be passed on--one hopes--forever.

On that level alone--and to make one ponder, "Are other preternaturally brilliant souls history has completely forgotten?"--it's worthwhile.

But as you like it, you may not quite love it.

No comments: