APT's "The Book of Will" is a Pale Valentine to Shakespeare
How would you compose a valentine to William Shakespeare?
Would you write a sonnet? Sing a love song? Perhaps carve a bust that presented the Bard in a slightly more flattering light? If you were currently the most produced living playwright in the U.S., you would write a play of course, so that’s what Lauren Gunderson did. Fulfilling a commission for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, she wrote The Book of Will, an unabashed love-fest honoring Shakespeare’s plays, the company that first brought them to life and the actors from The King’s Men who gathered and published the scripts after the playwright’s death. Seizing on a historical footnote, the play illustrates how close the world came to losing the complete works altogether and gives props to both the tenacity and the foresight of Shakespeare’s original superfans, whose efforts made the first folio a cornerstone of Western literature.
Known for plays that are eminently producible and crowd pleasing, Gunderson has hit on an unbeatable formula with The Book of Will, which is making its way around the country’s classical theaters and Shakespeare festivals: write a piece that glorifies Shakespeare; cast it with actors who have devoted their careers to his work; and perform it in front of audiences who already speak in reverent tones about memorable productions of Hamlet, Lear, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and even Pericles. There could not be a play more perfectly tailored to American Players Theatre, its company and its loyal patrons. The Wisconsin premiere, directed by Tim Ocel, delivers this facile valentine on a grand scale, but depends on the audience’s memories of previous APT productions to give it emotional weight.
The show begins with a young thespian (an adorable Josh Krause), haltingly delivering one of Hamlet’s great speeches — sort of. One generation removed from the author and the original script, his couplets are cobbled together, clumsily replacing poetry with awkward phrases that rankle the ear.
This insult is reason to drink, grouse, rail and mourn for the remaining members of Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men; Henry Condell (Jim DeVita), John Heminges (James Ridge) and Richard Burbage (La Shawn Banks). Incensed by those who would steal Shakespeare’s plays and perform them incorrectly in front of audiences who don’t seem to notice, Burbage goes on a tear, turning the pub into his own Globe and performing a greatest hits montage that brings down the house. It is one of the finest scenes in the play.
Shortly after this glorious performance, the great actor dies, taking many of the Bard’s soliloquies with him. This sudden loss sets the play in motion: it becomes imperative to find (or reconstruct) the original scripts and preserve them for the ages.
The other truly heart wrenching scene belongs to James Ridge’s Heminges, as he mourns the deaths of family and friends by coming not to a church, but to the stage. The actor-turned-company-manager is slowly healed by unleashing his anger and pain through Shakespeare’s monologues. And his meditation on the reason we go to the theater — in order to feel more, to have empathy, to dream and to cope with loss — is a crystallization of every great theater’s mission statement and every Shakespeare devotee’s thoughts as they settle in for another classic performance. Ridge has a special gift for communicating great sorrow, which is fully on display here.
The cast for APT’s The Book of Will swelled from the original 10 called for in the script to 25, including 5 children — many of whom have grown up watching their parents perform in Spring Green. This large number and age range is puzzling until the play’s final scene, when the entire company takes the stage to simultaneously recite Shakespeare’s lines in a brilliant cacophony. At that moment the audience can see the plays literally being passed on to the next generation of performers. With actors surrounded by sheets from Shakespeare’s folio, strung out on clotheslines for the ink to dry, the stage picture is overwhelming and triumphant.
In between those scenes, however, the audience has to sit through a lot of pedestrian dialogue and cheap laughs that the King’s Men would have abhorred. While it’s a fool’s errand for a playwright to attempt to write just like the Bard, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s script for Shakespeare in Love proves that you can have a great deal of fun with Shakespearean conventions while telling a smart, witty fictionalized origin story. Gunderson’s script falls far short of that in plotting, language, depth and character development.
DeVita, Ridge and Tracy Michelle Arnold as Heminges’ wife Alice all pour their combined talent into amping up the urgency of collecting Shakespeare’s plays and publishing them for posterity, but their obstacles are unremarkable and are resolved quickly. In the absence of a real villain, Triney Sandoval’s unscrupulous publisher character William Jaggard fills in, but even the underhanded money-grubber comes around without much cajoling. And there is little emotional reward for learning about the vagaries of Elizabethan copyright customs.
For comic relief there are also no twins, mistaken identities, fops, cross-dressing, bumbling locals or hidden love stories; there’s just David Daniel’s Ben Jonson. The poet laureate is drawn as a very well dressed, pompous, long-winded drunk. (Remarkable costume design by Holly Payne.) Daniel bathes in the part and clearly has fun as the inebriated and lascivious writer who is doomed to spend eternity envying his friend William’s astonishing talent and cursing his early death. But when one relishes Shakespeare’s insults, which are so colorful and plentiful that a cottage industry has sprung up in repackaging them, it’s disappointing when the best retorts Gunderson can come up with involve four-letter words and extending a middle finger to the sky.
Instead, the moments of light that penetrate most of the short, opaque, utilitarian scenes of the play come from within each viewer’s mind. When Melisa Pereyra speaks fondly of Lady M, Colleen Madden declares she likes Much Ado About Nothing and DeVita pines for the script of Pericles, these references automatically evoke past APT performances that were superlative and ephemeral.
Lear. Midsummer. Henry V. Comedy of Errors. Winter’s Tale. Romeo and Juliet. Macbeth. Tempest. Taming of the Shrew. Merchant of Venice. Merry Wives. Othello. Just by hearing a list of past productions contained in the First Folio annual audience members are likely to summon many fond — perhaps even formative — memories.
These warm recollections and the affection we feel for the actors who have graced APT’s stage for many years cannot be credited to Gunderson’s writing. It is instead a credit to all the amazing work American Players Theatre has done over the last four decades.
So don’t expect to see a play that can compete with the poetry of the rest of APT’s season. Instead see The Book of Will simply so you can raise a glass to Shakespeare, and the plays we have enjoyed in Spring Green since 1979.