BWW Review: Cheers to THE BOOK OF WILL at Main Street Theater!

BWW Review: Cheers to THE BOOK OF WILL at Main Street Theater!

THE BOOK OF WILL is a fictional account of how two actors struggle to collect and publish the complete works of William Shakespeare just to have them "all together and safe". It's a play that ruminates about friendship and the value of arts in our lives. It draws inspiration from the iambic pentameter of the Bard, but allows characters to speak in today's coarse vernacular to keep the material alive for a modern audience. In a way it is like watching a heady special episode of CHEERS set in London in the early 1620s. It seems like a place where everybody would know your name, and in the case of Will they did.


Lauren Gunderson's play concentrates on two aging actors - Henry Condell and John Heminges who lose a friend that is the only source of correct lines for many of Shakespeare's plays. Back in the day stage plays were rarely published with any sort of care, and William Shakespeare's works were distributed in cheaply done quartos that were never authorized or correctly proofed. Theatrical arts was seen as disposable and nothing to be revered as high culture or even art. In a way it was simply populist entertainment, and the effort that Henry and John take to create a leather bound folio of a playwright's works must have seemed mind boggling. In a way it was a significant cultural act that had ripples even today.

Dwight Clark plays Henry Corndell and Joel Sanders portrays John Heminges. They are likable leads who create incredible chemistry with each other and the rest of the cast. They both perfect believable characters who we see as aging grizzled veterans of The Globe Theatre. Probably doesn't hurt they in real life are long-time professionals that have made Main Street Theater home over the years. They carry the emotional arc of this work, and do so with grace and a good sense of humor. I wanted to sit down and have a beer with both of them by the time the curtain fell.

Brittny Bush is cast as the daughter of Heminges, and she is wonderful in a simple straightforward way that audiences have rarely seen her do before. Elizabeth Marshall Black proves to be the MVP as she plays three distinctivley different roles each with their own full characterization. Her comic skills are an asset as she plays the loves of Shakespeare as well as the wife of Condell. Ivy Castle Simpson breaks hearts as wife Rebecca Heminges. She brings a natural ease to her role as well. That seems to be the commonality of the main cast to play things with a certain air of honest simplicity, and that is a credit to director Rebecca Greene Uden.

If you're looking at who is having the most fun onstage, it's easy to single out John Feltch who is assigned rival poet Ben Jonson. He's over the top and wildly campy, but zings home an entire monologue about the importance of what Shakespeare's works are. Brandon Balque, Rutherford Cravens, Shane Manning, Blake Weir and Zack Varela fill out several roles throughout the production and join Mr. Feltch in the joy of being theatrical and larger than life. They are a colorful chorus of groundlings and mechanicals that serve as comic counterpoint to the earnest leads.

Technically things are kept as simple and honest as the acting. Torsten Louis creates a thrust space full of natural wood tones that can become anyplace it needs to be with small shifts here and there. Donna Southern Schmidt has raided pretty expensive stock costume closets to provide a traditional Shakespeare era look. Eric Marsh uses inventive targeted lights without much fuss to travel scene to scene. Special kudos go out to Shawn W. St. John who creates a wonderfully immersive soundscape to create atmosphere.

It's strange to describe THE BOOK OF WILL as a gentle comedy about such a significant event, but that is apt and what it is. It's the kind of show that will make you smile, and think about old friends who mean a lot to you. It is also a love letter to the importance of theater in providing respite from the real world, something desperately needed in these modern times. It's not what you would expect from a costume drama about the intricacies of publishing plays by the world's most important playwright. It's a wonderful comedic diversion with plenty of heart, and Main Street Theater should be proud to wear that on their sleeve.

THE BOOK OF WILL runs through October 21st at the Main Street Theater Rice Village location. Ticket purchases and show information can be found at www.mainstreettheater.com/ .

Photo by Pin Lim

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From This Author Brett Cullum

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