SCS opens its season of legacy with a comic thriller
What would William Shakespeare think if he knew his theater works were being performed in a California seaside town 400 years after they were first printed? Except for the devotion and determination of two of his fellow actors these masterpieces might have been lost to future generations.
In Lauren Gunderson’s high-spirited caper The Book of Will, set seven years after Shakespeare’s death, two of the Bard’s King’s Men company—John Heminges (Mike Ryan) and Henry Condell (Charles Pasternak)—are so enraged over the boot-leg variations of Shakespeare’s greatest hits being performed all over London, that they vow to round up the genuine versions to print in a single volume.
Thanks to their finagling, cajoling and threatening, plus a lot of help from high and low characters such as mercenary printer William Jaggard (Rex Young) and England’s hard-drinking poet laureate Ben Jonson (David Kelly) we have the plays collected in what’s known today as the First Folio.
Most of the action is set in Heminges’ tavern, where his wife Rebecca (Amy Kim Waschke) and daughter Alice (Allie Pratt) keep the men in line and the beer on tap. In a brisk first half, The Book of Will unleashes a gorgeously orated love-letter to Shakespeare.
We meet Richard Burbage, the most popular actor of the day, the bombastic Ben Jonson (both parts played by an amazing David Kelly) and the savvy women behind all this effort, including the ever-astonishing Paige Lindsey White, playing both Condell’s wife Elizabeth, and Shakespeare’s alleged, wealthy mistress Emilia.
I couldn’t get enough of David Kelly, whose tortured Jonson pontificates his love/hate relationship with his deceased rival.
Also a revelation is Waschke, as Heminges’ passionately encouraging wife, who in Gunderson’s script is an equal partner in powering this effort to fruition. In fact, according to Gunderson’s subtext, the strong-willed wives and the tippling Ben Johnson were the real brains behind the saving of Shakespeare’s authentic writings. It’s a stretch, however charming.
The play quickly sucks us into the urgent task of locating the actual notes and lines written by Shakespeare. Many have been lost, or stashed away or destroyed and need to be recreated by the combined memory-power of his fellow actors and detractors alike. A veritable mission impossible.
Whether the women in the lives of the actors were actual collaborators, or simply figments of poetic license with a feminist spin, remains unknowable. But it makes for good theater and terrific on-stage chemistry.
Waschke’s dramatic vocal authority matched that of Ryan and then some. Kelly’s mercurial histrionics, and the camaraderie fleshed out with brilliant physical comedy by Ryan and Pasternak, all make The Book of Will a rousing evening.
Everyone in this smart cast is terrific, but some elements rose above the others in opening night’s performance. One was the pleasure of watching two highly gifted, brilliantly paired actors—the past and future Artistic Directors, Mike Ryan and Charles Pasternak—play with and off each other’s many moves. Sheer delight.
The other was the guilty pleasure of wallowing in a steady stream of immortal lines from Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Burbage orates a roster of classic moments from a dozen of the plays.
Consider it an absolute World Tour of Shakespearian verse and anyone who claims to enjoy these famous soliloquies and verses won’t want to miss the chance to hear them played, spoken and delivered by a troupe of spot-on players.
Ignited by piquant, often poignant storytelling, The Book of Will delivers a juicy comic opera driven by a race against time to save the work of a genius. Playwright Gunderson makes a few curious choices toward the ending that might have been better rethought. But I quibble. Don’t miss this bravura lovefest about the man who invented the English language.
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s The Book of Will, by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Laura Gordon, at the Audrey Stanley Grove through August 27.