Review: The Book of Will

Tyler Woods, Shawn Churchman, and Kate Kemmet (l-r) in The Book of Will
Photo by April Porterfield

By Larry Laneer
August 12, 2019

Oklahoma Shakespeare (they dropped “in the Park” earlier this year) has returned to its Paseo space with the 2017 play The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson. She is the author of The Revolutionists, which OS did here last summer. Book of Will is a speculative play, promising more than it delivers.

The play continues OS’s exemplary practice in recent years of doing a modern play, usually set in a classical period. It jibes with the company’s mission and gives audiences a chance to see plays we probably wouldn’t get from other theater companies.

The play is based on true events and some of the characters were real people. Shakespeare died in 1616, and survival of his work could be thanks to actors Henry Condell and John Heminges, who edited 36 plays for a collection known as the First Folio, published in 1623 (OS has a reproduction on display in the lobby). They even drafted Ben Jonson (1572-1637), considered by scholars to be the finest Elizabethan playwright after Shakespeare, to write a preface. The play also includes Richard Burbage (c. 1567-1619), generally known as the greatest actor of his time. He was the first actor to play Richard III, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello (what an epitaph!).

Gunderson reflects on the struggles birthing the First Folio. She has taken on a tough job, because everyone knows how the story ends. Yes, the First Folio gets published. So, Gunderson creates tragedies and triumphs for the real and fictional characters. Although the action takes place between 1619 and 1623, the dialog is mainly 21st century.

The director Rex Daugherty has assembled a fine cast. It would be nice to see them doing a better play, although The Book of Will is worthy of production, I guess. Chris Rodgers as Condell and Shawn Churchman as Heminges lead the ensemble cast. In their effort to produce the First Folio, the determined Condell and the reluctant Heminges are similar to the dramatic opposites of comedy and tragedy. It’s good to see Rodgers and Churchman in these roles. Then you have the boffo Tyler Woods as both the railing Burbage and imperious Jonson. If I’m not mistaken, when changing from Burbage to Jonson, Woods alters the color of his beard. Behind both beards, he gives an impressive performance.

The rest of the cast play multiple roles. Kate Kemmet, Aiesha Watley, and Renee Krapff (always good to see her onstage) are wives and other women. Unfortunately, the Elizabethan period is a man’s world, although Condell gives a speech at the end about how Shakespeare wrote often about daughters.

OS has kept the same set from last summer with a low stage at one end of its long rectangular space with two doors upstage left and right and a balcony center, the same configuration in miniature of the Globe playhouse, where Shakespeare’s plays were done in London. Daugherty has given the play an efficient staging in the flexible space. Emily Herrera did the sharp-looking costumes.

This play doesn’t have as much to it as you might think, considering the subject matter.  But Gunderson has written and Daugherty has staged a poignant, beautiful ending. In sound and on paper, we see and hear Shakespeare’s words rain down upon the world. It’s a nice moment.

The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson
Oklahoma Shakespeare
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through August 31
2920 Paseo

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