Theater Review: THE BOOK OF WILL (Hub Theatre Company of Boston)

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by Lynne Weiss on October 29, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


Playwright Lauren Gunderson (Bauer, Silent Sky) has a gift of dramatizing small moments in history to illuminate larger influences, and that is exactly what she does in The Book of Will. Under the direction of Bryn Boice, the Hub Theatre Company, which offers pay-what-you-can tickets for every seat at every show, offers a delightfully moving account of the process of creating the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays. The production is sharply compelling, with well-timed humor and poignant depth, making it both fascinating and highly entertaining.

Opening three years after the Bard’s death, his thespian friends and colleagues Richard Burbage (Dev Luthra), John Heminges (Brendan O’Neill), and Henry Condell (Cleveland Nicoll) like to sit around with their tankards of ale and bemoan the terrible uses to which the pirated and pulverized versions of his work has been put on by second- and third-rate actors.

The unexpected death of Burbage, who had committed all of Shakespeare’s grandest soliloquies and characters to heart, is a crisis for Heminges and Condell. They have lost not only a dear friend, but a repository of knowledge. Determined to preserve the work of the playwright they recognize as one of the greatest to have ever lived, they begin the process of collecting his work so it can be printed and preserved.

This is no easy task. Early seventeenth-century plays were not printed or even written out in their entirety by anyone other than the playwright. Each actor received only his own lines. Heminges and Condell scramble to try to find and assemble the pieces of as many plays as they can, aided in their efforts by copyist Ralph Crane (Josh Telepman), who has secretly retained a number of the plays for his own pleasure, and their wives Rebecca Heminges (Laura Rocklyn) and Elizabeth Condell (Jessica Golden) and by the Heminges’s daughter Alice (Hub Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Lauren Elias).

Beyond the process of assembling scripts, the friends and their allies face problems of money and competition. Printers William Jaggard (Dev Luthra) and his son Isaac Jaggard (Jeremy Beazlie) transform from obstacles to collaborators in the course of the play, while Shakespeare’s old frenemy poet laureate Ben Jonson (the swashbuckling John Blair) overcomes his envy of his rival to write a eulogy that serves as a preface to the final work. The production team, including Peyton Tavares (Scenic Design), Ellie De Lucia (Costume and Wig Design), Talia Elise (Lighting Design), and Ted Kearnan (Sound Design) use the intimate space of the Plaza Theater at Boston Center for the Arts to full effect.

We learn a great deal about why these people struggled to create the First Folio, especially in a very powerful scene in which O’Neill, as Heminges, portrays the ways that Shakespeare’s work has sustained him in his own life. We also learn about the sources of variations among different printings of the First Folio and numerous other intriguing details. Playwright Gunderson often treats women’s history and feminist perspectives on history in her work. In The Book of Will, basically the story of two men struggling against their own mortality to preserve the work of the ultimate dead white man, she emphasizes the possible yet believable roles of Rebecca and Alice Heminges and of Elizabeth Condell. O’Neill and Nicoll portray John Heminges and Henry Condell as deeply sensitive and devoted husbands, not my usual expectation for men of this time, but one I am happy to believe. The powerful conclusion to the play offers evidence for the underlying argument of the work: Shakespeare wrote the plays, but without the efforts of fairly ordinary people, we would not have his work today.

photos by Tim Gurczak

The Book of Will
Hub Theatre Company of Boston
Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre
539 Tremont St. in Boston’s Back Bay
ends on November 12, 2023
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
for tickets (Pay-What-You-Can), visit Hub Theatre

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