Review: THE BOOK OF WILL at A Noise Within

THE BOOK OF WILL plays through June 4.

By: May. 28, 2023
Review: THE BOOK OF WILL at A Noise Within

If the records of A Noise Within’s production history could determine how many times company founder (and frequent performer) Geoff Elliott and actor Deborah Strang have shared the stage in the ANW’s more than 30 year history, that number would be substantial. 

This trivial-est of trivia came to mind after a scene unfolded in the second act of the company’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s THE BOOK OF WILL. Elliott’s John Heminges, an actor-turned-manager-turned-literary-publisher, deep in the weeds of trying to birth William Shakespeare’s First Folio, holds a bedside conversation with his wife Rebecca (Strang), who has been a force in getting Heminges to take on this endeavor. Husband-and-wife ruminate on their life together, their values, and – because this is a play about actors during the Renaissance – about the theater. That scene, played with such knowing tenderness between these two very skilled actors, would be reason alone to catch what ANW is doing with this very popular play. Gunderson’s storytelling and her love of Shakespeare is another. It’s also icing on a most tasty cake that may not be for all palates. If you get the running gag of a character’s passion for PERICLES, this one’s for you.

Certainly, THE BOOK OF WILL is a play for lovers of all things Shakespeare – an audience that this company has long cultivated. Further, it's an examination of the perils of taking on grand, crazy endeavors. And if one were to contemplate what centuries of literature, art and culture might have looked like had a couple of actors not assembled William Shakespeare’s plays into a single volume, well, it doesn’t get much more major than that. Elliott’s Heminges and Jeremy Rabb’s Henry Condell are the two leaders of this act of folly. They get help from a colorful assemblage of characters – printers, patrons, Dark Ladies and Ben Jonson, the Poet Laureate of England. Shakespeare is three years in the grave when the play begins, but even though he never appears, he is most certainly a key player in these proceedings. Because how could he not be.

There is the rub. The more a viewer knows about the Bard’s plays - any of his plays - the more you’ll recognize titles, characters, key speeches and that era of English history, and the greater your potential for enjoyment. Gunderson has not written in period language, so THE BOOK OF WILL is not difficult to follow. Her characters are human and relatable; her storytelling is first-rate. It’s an inside-baseball tale for the HAMLET set.

Which is what these players are. Regular patrons of A Noise Within will have seen actors like Frederick Stuart, Kasey Mahaffy, Trisha Miller, Rabb, Elliott and Strang in Shakespearean roles on many occasions. Here we find them dressed for the occasion – ruffs and all – to spin a how-the-Folio-was-won yarn and dash off a few famous bits of dialog in the process. The company, directed by Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott, can play the comedic, crowd-pleasing beats, and they can pluck the heartstrings with equal aplomb. Gunderson’s play contains both.  

The play opens with a very recognizable speech. As we watch a young actor fumbling his way through a snippet of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy – from one of the Bad Quarto editions – something sounds off, and not just because the kid is reading it badly. The words are wrong to our ears certainly and they sound like fingernails on a chalkboards to Heminges and Condell who repair to the Globe Tap House (owned by Heminges) after the performance whence they proceed to get soused and rip apart what they have just witnessed. Heminges and Condell are former actors in Shakespeare’s troupe, the King’s Men. They were Shakespeare’s friends who have recited his lines many times over. Now they’re basically seeing the work coming back in a pirated form.

Heminges has retired to manage the company and his alehouse; Condell still treads the boards. Their partner-in-criticism is another King’s Man and crusty critic, the famous actor Richard Burbage (Frederick Stuart) who has played not only Hamlet, but every other major role Shakespeare ever wrote. Burbage gets one scene and Stuart, oozing righteous egotism, tears into it.  

The boys miss their dead friend and the lament what the theater has become even as his mangled plays continue to get multiple staging.  When it occurs to someone that Shakespeare’s death (followed by Burbage’s) could also mean the demise of the plays, Heminges and Condell decide to publish a collected works in folio form to preserve them. Between financing the endeavor, actually finding and reassembling the plays as Shakespeare wrote them and working with sleazy printers, this proves no easy feat. Rooting them on and helping when they can are Heminges’ wife, Rebecca (Strang), Condell’s wife, Elizabeth (Trisha Miller) and Heminges’ daughter, Alice (Nicole Javier), a barmaid at the Globe Tap House who is every inch at home among men and thespians. Shakespeare’s widow, Anne Hathaway, even puts in an appearance.  

Ten actors play many roles in the kind of double and triple casting that sits slickly in A Noise Within’s wheelhouse. With its intelligence and literary bent, the same is true of this play. Frederica Nascimento scenic design and the costumes of Angela Balogh Calin are dead on and perfect.

The words of Shakespeare won’t be back at A Nosie Within until the fall. The company’s treatment of Gunderson’s work should more than tide classics-hungry audiences until then.

THE BOOK OF WILL plays through June 4.  

Photo by Craig Schwartz




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