Back in September, The Catamounts put on The Taming, a rousing if uneven play by Lauren Gunderson. It was my first experience with Gunderson’s work, and I found it exceedingly clever and biting, but lacking a certain focus and clarity. In short, The Taming made me take notice of Gunderson and begged the question of what her potential might be.
The Book of Will answers that question with a throaty roar and unequivocally announces Gunderson as a playwright with whom to be reckoned. It is, quite frankly, one of the best plays I have ever seen. It will bring tears of both laughter and sorrow to all but the most jaded audience member’s eyes. It is, in a word, a triumph.
Shakespeare lovers will kick themselves, hard, if they don’t get to a performance of The Book of Will. Those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work may get slightly less out of the play but should still enjoy it immensely as an explication of a little-known but pivotal moment in theatrical history, a thoughtful rumination on mortality, a touching ode to the power of love and a laugh-out-loud comedy.
The Book of Will is, fundamentally, the story of the creation of the First Folio, which is the original collection of many of Shakespeare’s most well-known and well-loved plays. The First Folio includes, among others, Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, Julius Caesar, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Taming of the Shrew. Without the First Folio, a substantial amount of Shakespeare’s work would, almost certainly, have been lost forever. This is because when Shakespeare died, few if any complete copies of his plays existed. Actors were provided only their parts. To make matters worse, publishers published unauthorized versions, often only from memory, that diverged drastically from the original texts.
Two actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, took it upon themselves to preserve Shakespeare’s legacy by assembling and publishing, in one definitive and official collection, as many of the Bard’s plays as they could find. It was an epic endeavor that would span years and face seemingly overwhelming obstacles. It would prove to be one of the most important literary and theatrical undertakings ever, but it is seldom mentioned in English or history classes.
Gunderson’s play could change that, and for good reason. The Book of Will assiduously avoids coming off as a dusty history lesson even as it follows Heminges and Condell step by step from conception to completion of their project. Instead, it relates the history using fully-developed, utterly human characters whose humor is infectious, whose passions are profound and whose losses are heartbreaking.
Heminges, played with warmth and pathos by Liam Craig, is the worrier, the skeptic. He believes in the importance of their task, but he often feels like it is an impossible one. Condell, played with panache and depth by Kurt Rhoads, is the optimistic yin to Heminges’ yang. Whenever Heminges questions or falters, Condell answers and steadies. It is Condell’s unwavering belief and boundless energy that pushes the First Folio forward.
The rest of the cast of this world premiere assay multiple roles with decided aplomb. Early on, Thaddeus Fitzpatrick earns peals of laughter with his deft delivery of a purposefully and hilariously mangled version of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be?” line. Later, his printer character somehow amuses amidst the minutia of publishing. Wesley Mann plays the unscrupulous publisher William Jaggard with villainous relish. Triney Sandoval is a comic joy as both Richard Burbage and Ben Jonson. Nance Williamson plays John’s wife, Rebecca, with so much earthy compassion that it’s hard to believe she is also the cold, aristocratic Anne Hathaway Shakespeare. And as John’s daughter, Alice, Jennifer Le Blanc owns every one of her scenes.
All of the action takes place in front of a wonder of a set by Sandra Goldmark. The curved construction immediately evokes the Globe Theatre. The dark wood walls are full of nooks, crannies and cubbyholes as well as the occasional leaded glass window. Whatever the setting of a given scene might be, from the theatre to various homes to pubs and publishing houses, the background morphs perfectly into whatever place it must.
In all respects, the Denver Center Theatre Company does justice to Gunderson’s transcendent play. Seriously. Stop reading this and go buy a ticket right now.
On the Bill: The Book of Will. Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1400 Curtis St., Denver, 720-865-4220, denvercenter.org. Through Feb. 26.