The paradox of William Shakespeare is that his works reflect the motives of people at all levels of society from kings to working classes and peons and from husbands and wives to scoundrels and mistresses, but even though his works were popular with all classes during his lifetime and his plays contain an amazing amount of dead-on observations still quoted now, those plays tend to attract an intellectual audience today rather than the general audience of his time.
But Shakespeare’s company members, usually referred to as the Kings’ Men, their title when King James I became their patron in 1603, really appreciated the value of the words they were saying.
In ‘The Book of Will,’ now at Northlight Theatre, playwright Lauren Gunderson shows how that appreciation likely led to the publication of the Bard’s works in the 1623 First Folio.
The play introduces audiences to the company’s players, their relatives and their friends as they struggle to get the original comedies, tragedies and histories into a quality book. These people wanted to preserve the words as originally written for them rather than the bastardized versions some people were promoting at the time.
The time? This was the early 1600s. Paper was costly and at a premium. Other issues were how to gather all the original works and obtain the rights to them.
Nevertheless the plays did come out in one tome. What Gunderson has done after considerable research is re-create how that First Folio came into existence. The characters in her play are real though some poetic license and assumptions are made.
Audiences will meet actor John Heminges (Jim Ortlieb) who became the company’s manager, his wife, Rebecca (Rengin Altay), their daughter, Alice (Dana Black) and actor Henry Condell (Gregory Linington) who became co-owner of the Globe Theatre and then the Blackfriar’s playhouse and his wife, Elizabeth (McKinley Carter.
Audiences will also see playwright and English Poet Laureate Ben Jonson (William Dick), Richard Burbage (Austin Tichenor and the Jaggards, William (Tichenor) and son Isaac (Luigi Sottile) who published the First Folio, Ralph Crane (Thomas J. Cox) who produced transcripts of the King’s Men’s plays and Ed Knight (LSottile) who was a King’s Men promoter.
In addition, Altay is also Anne Hathaway, Black is also Susannah Shakespeare, Carter is also Shakespeare’s mistress and poet Emilia Bassano Lanier. The characters of Boy Hamlet, Marcus and Bernardo are portrayed by Sam Hubbard.
Excellent program notes in the program help identify the players and other people involved in The Folio.
The cast, directed by Jessica Thebus, is superb. However, several Shakespearean characters and situations are mentioned so quickly and in a supposedly appropriate accent that not all references are easily caught.
Indeed, if going to see ‘Book of Will’ it wouldn’t hurt to go back and re-read some of those plays analyzed in high school or pick up a book of quotes from the library to see all of the Bard’s phrases that have become common usage.
Fine scenic design by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod and costumes by Janice Pytel perfectly set the time period of London, 1619 to 1623.
As great as the First Folio achievement was, its importance is truly not felt until the last scene. You have to go Northlight to feel it and see how brilliant staging brings it all together.
DETAILS: ‘The Book of Will’ is at Northlight Theatre in the North Shore Center for Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, through Dec. 17, 2017. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (847) 673-6300 and visit Northlight.
For more shows visit TheatreinChicago.