Saving Shakespeare according to 'The Book of Will'

Monday, 27 November 2017, 06:16:06 AM. WEISS: A lively Northlight cast plays out the path taken to get the Bard's 36 plays on paper.

She may not be a household name, but Lauren Gunderson, who has more than 20 plays to her credit, is reckoned to be the most-produced playwright in the United States. Last year Northlight Theatre presented the sparkling world premiere of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” her beguiling sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” And now it has mounted another of her recent works, “The Book of Will,” which suggests why William Shakespeare is unquestionably the world’s most produced playwright.

As it happens, the Bard’s work might easily have been lost, or come down to us in the most butchered, scattershot form. Gunderson’s play (the latest of her riffs on all things Shakespearean) suggests who was responsible for rescuing the full treasury of his scripts, and how they carried off what is surely the greatest English language publishing coup of all time — the publication, in 1623, of what is known as The First Folio, an authoritative compendium of his 36 comedies, tragedies and histories.

When: Through Dec. 17
Where: Northlight Theater,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $30 – $81
Info: (847) 673-6300;
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

Austin Tichenor (from left), Dana Black, Jim Ortlieb and Gregory Linington in the Northlight Theatre production of “The Book of Will.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

The truth is, surprisingly little of certainty is known about Shakespeare, and even the whole nature of his identity remains a nagging literary question. “The Book of Will”  (which joins such wide-ranging riffs on the playwright and his world as “Shakespeare in Love,” “Something Rotten” and “Her Majesty’s Will“), homes in on a crucial act of preservation — one carried out, with significant difficulty, by the aging actors and other theater personnel who were “there at the creation,” and who sense they have a duty to serve as rigorous archivists.

“The Book of Will,” a fictional if loosely fact-based take on events, opens in 1619, a few years after Shakespeare’s death, by which time horribly dumbed-down versions of his plays (here exemplified by a brief and terrible excerpt from “Hamlet”) are being produced. Gathering in outrage, and determined to right this wrong, are the fabled actor Richard Burbage (Austin Tichenor), who played many of the great roles, and the two men who fervently spearheaded the Folio project: John Heminges (Jim Ortlieb), a member of Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men, who originated the role of Falstaff, but became the company’s business manager and a shareholder in the Globe Theatre, and Henry Condell (Gregory Linington), an actor and co-owner of the Globe. Alongside them are several smart and determined women, including Heminges’ wife, Rebecca (Rengin Altay); their daughter, Alice (Dana Black), and Condell’s wife, Elizabeth (McKinley Carter).

Tichenor also plays the crucial role of William Jaggard, the brash, mendacious, Rupert Murdoch-like publisher, whose smart, handsome son, Isaac (Luigi Sottile), is committed to doing things right on this prohibitively expensive project. Hovering around the perimeter are Ben Johnson (William Dick), the other great playwright of the era, and Emila Lanier (Carter), who might have been “The Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Crucial to the work of gathering and authenticating the many and varied forms of the plays’ texts are Ralph Crane (Thomas J. Cox), a professional scribe, and Ed Knight (Sottile), a prompter for the King’s Men.

Gunderson’s play, directed by Jessica Thebus (who also staged “Miss Bennet”), is uneven — at its best when most heartfelt, and at its weakest when straining to be accessible and glibly funny (although a running joke about “Pericles,” whose authorship is disputed, is very funny). Nevertheless the cast here is lively and engaging, and there are touching scenes between husbands and wives, as well as a surprisingly moving moment when the men behind the Folio project present a copy of the volume to Shakespeare’s widow, Anne Hathaway (Altay).

The Northlight production is elegantly designed, with the show’s multi-level set, by the always ingenious and sensitive team of Richard & Jacqueline Penrod, capturing the Tudor aesthetic while also easily shifting locations. And Janice Pytel’s costumes are exceptionally stylish.

The play’s greatest virtue — and it is not inconsiderable — is that it makes you think about a seminal but often overlooked achievement. For without the First Folio, Shakespeare’s work might well be a shadow of its grandly salvaged self.

McKinley Carter and Gregory Linington in the Northlight Theatre production of “The Book of Will.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

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