It is hard to imagine a world that Shakespeare does not grace. Based on a true-story, “The Book of Will” shows us how easily the bard could have vanished into the ages. George Elliot said that the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and so it is here. Only due to the tireless efforts of some of Shakespeare’s fellow actors is he still with us today.
“The Book of Will,” written by Laura Gunderson and well directed by Richard Atha-Nicholls, takes us to a time where the written word is done with a quill pen and one’s legacy depends on friends’ memories. After seeing a poorly acted and corrupted version of “Hamlet,” three friends meet at the inn owned by troupe manager John Heminges (played by Steve Tobin) to reminisce about their dead friend Shakespeare, rue the state of theatre, and to compete over who remembers the most from Shakespeare’s works.
“The Book of Will” is a hearty, well-played tribute to friendship, faith, love, and doing the right thing.
However, “the play’s the thing” (“Hamlet”). After a few drinks too many and a confrontation with the offending Hamlet, actors Henry Condell (well played by Brian Gilbert) and Richard Burbage (played forcefully by Matt Leyendecker), along with Heminges and his daughter Alice, come up with the idea of publishing Shakespeare’s works to preserve them properly.
Alas, easier said than done. The friends quickly realize there are no copies of the plays—anywhere—and they have no money for the project. But “nothing can come of nothing” (“King Lear”). After many missteps, a lot of luck, time, memory, and cajoling from wives, the project begins to take shape.
As with Shakespeare’s own untimely death, we find that “they have their exits and entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts” (“As You Like It”). Key players in their effort keep dying, and it is left to a dwindling and aging few to see the project through.
Although based on real people, Elizabeth Condell (Rebecca Ellis) and Rebecca Heminges (Lory Cosner) serve more as the inner moral voices of their equivocating husbands than fully fleshed-out characters. Alice Heminges (Brianna Goode) is a constant and vital force on stage, as well as an important part of seeing the printing project to its end.
William Jaggard (Duncan Hood) is a standout as the printer who takes on the bard’s work. He is forceful, creepy, and opportunistic. Although blind, he can see a chance to make a penny from a mile away. Ralph Crane (Edd Miller) is adorable as the mild-mannered clerk who becomes essential to the project.
The Colonial Players theater is in the round, so little set work is necessary. The set (designed by Richard Atha-Nicholls and Edd Miller) is simple and efficient, as a stage turns into a desk or a grave and the table and chairs take us to many rooms. The costumes (coordinated by Linda Swann) are fun, and the lighting (designed by Alex Brady) takes us around the set and from scene to scene flawlessly.
The ending is, of course, a foregone conclusion. “The Book of Will” is a hearty, well-played tribute to friendship, faith, love, and doing the right thing. Shakespeare says “words are easy, like the wind; faithful friends are hard to find.” (“The Passionate Pilgrim”). We will be ever grateful for his words and his dear, faithful friends.
Running time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
“The Book of Will” runs though March 19, 2023 at The Colonial Players,108 East St., Annapolis, MD 21401. For more information and tickets, please call 410-268-7373, or go online. Masks are optional, though strongly encouraged.
Six performances will also be offered live streaming using The Players’ state-of-the-art series of computer-controlled cameras through the streaming platform Stellar Tickets. Your household can purchase a ticket to watch the live stream on your smart TV, computer, tablet, or mobile device from the comfort of your own home! You may purchase one ticket to cover everyone watching within your household. Please note, these live streams will occur in real time, and will not be available on-demand.