BWW Review: Recommended Viewing (and reading): THE BOOK OF WILL Delights at Austin Playhouse
You can't write about a work of Shakespeare or about a work about Shakespeare without quoting one of his most famous (and theatrically appropriate) lines: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." But on the stage of the Austin Playhouse, the men and women aren't merely players. They are the driving force behind bringing THE BOOK OF WILL to life with vivacious enthusiasm and well-honed skill.
Lauren Gunderson, the most produced living playwright in America, penned THE BOOK OF WILL; originally commissioned and produced at the Denver Center Theatre Company in January of 2017. It has been subsequently produced throughout the United States in the years since.
Don't be mistaken, as Gunderson's play highlights the true story of the preservation of Shakespeare's works, not the bard himself. Three years after Shakespeare's death, theatre troupes take advantage of the lack of copyright law in Elizabethan England and produce unauthorized, botched recreations of his work. The members of Shakespeare's theatre company decide they must put a stop to this by creating the true, definitive collection of all his works for the public. So begins the journey of these men, along with their families and friends, to collect all the works of one of the most important literary figures in the world. This collection becomes Shakespeare's First Folio.
Actor Huck Huckaby possesses warmth, gravitas, and governance as John Heminges, the reluctant leader of the Folio mission. He immediately brings to mind legendary actor Jeff Bridges as soon as he steps on stage. Mr. Huckaby portrays Heminges' conflicting emotions with careworn honesty as Heminges faces triumph and tragedy along the journey to create the precious Folio.
John Heminges' wife, Rebecca, is played with wise yet fierce strength by actress Cyndi Williams. Rebecca knows as much Shakespeare as her male counterparts, and understands more than anybody the dire importance of this Folio. In a profound scene, John doubts the mission he's about to embark on to create it, so Rebecca lets him know exactly why he shouldn't. As Rebecca, Ms. Williams gracefully toes the line between blunt truthfulness and gentle encouragement.On the other end of the spectrum, actor Toby Minor bursts onto the stage in dual roles as member of the famed King's Men theatre company Richard Burbage, as well as Shakespeare's rival Ben Johnson. If it's possible, his energy exceeds the already enormous energy of his fellow cast members. The maddening stubbornness yet tenderness he brings to the role of Ben Johnson is truly a delight to watch.
The professionalism and dedication of the Austin Playhouse Acting Company truly stands out in this production of THE BOOK OF WILL. Under the direction of Lara Toner Haddock, the cast hits each mark and delivers every line with laser-cut precision and confidence. Unfortunately the supporting roles don't fair as well as the main roles, as it seems their depth and nuance get a bit lost amidst the immense energy and sharpness. This takes away from the heartiness of the production, but is in no way a downfall of it.
Large Tudor set pieces remain unchanged as the actors move from scene to scene, so simple props transform the stage into various cottages, printing shops, or taverns. One aspect of this production which cannot be regarded as simple are the costumes. My mouth was practically watering over costume designer Buffy Manners' stunning use of pattern and texture. Each costume is a rich tapestry of fabrics that holds weight and depth, not to mention historical accuracy. The costumes easily could have gone unnoticed in the background, but Ms. Manners makes the most of this opportunity by using bold yet tasteful fabrics and creating multiple costumes for each cast member. Bravo, Buffy Manners, for your sartorial workmanship.
With its subject matter, THE BOOK OF WILL may not be the play for non-Shakespeare fans. References fly past unappreciated, draining enjoyment and adding confusion. But for a Shakespeare fan, this delightful production causes genuine gratitude for the historical figures who created the inimitable First Folio as well as the cast and crew of Austin Playhouse who bring THE BOOK OF WILL to life.
Photo Credit: Lara Toner Haddock
May 31 - June 30, 2019
6001 Airport Boulevard (ACC's Highland Campus)
Austin, TX, 78752
TICKETS: Tickets range from $36-$42
BOX OFFICE: 512.476.0084
DISCOUNTS: All student tickets are half-price. $3 discount for Seniors 65 and up. Group rates available.