Colonial Players’ production of The Book of Will is a fabulous celebration of Shakespeare and the theater. Lauren Gunderson’s play shows the playwright’s actor friends in The King’s Men, after his death, trying to assemble and publish the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Directed by Richard Atha-Nicholls, it mixes love and loss with great comedy.
Brian Gilbert gives a joyous enthusiasm to Henry Condell, an actor in the troupe. He comes up with the idea of collecting Shakespeare’s plays, encouraging and cajoling the others into helping with the crazy scheme. He rails against a rogue printer publishing bad copies of Shakespeare’s works. He has a running joke about his love for Pericles as his favorite play, not the most popular choice.
Steve Tobin plays John Heminges, manager of The King’s Men, with a cautiousness concealing deep emotion. He offers practical objections to the idea, having to be persuaded throughout the show. He has a powerfully moving scene after a personal tragedy where he reveals how much the theater has meant to him while questioning if it does anything.
Although onstage briefly, Matt Leyendecker dominates with seemingly boundless energy as Richard Burbage. Drinking with his fellow actors, he recites speeches from different Shakespeare plays, switching from one to the next quickly and with ease. He regales his friends (and the audience) with reminiscences of roles and performances, and attacks those actors doing “sub-par” versions of Shakespeare plays. He is indirectly responsible for the idea of the Folio.
Jeffrey Miller gives excellent comic timing to Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s rival playwright. He carefully staggers across the stage drunk, giving great put-downs of other poets and writers, while also shamelessly flirting with Alice (Brianna Goode). He shows depth as well, in tears while recounting the last time he saw Shakespeare, or reading the plays for the first time.
Bill Fellows plays prompter Ed Knight with great firmness. Approached by the actors about finding Shakespeare’s scripts, he shows a reluctance to help them, comically re-directing Ralph Crane (Edd Miller) as he offers helpful suggestions. Edd Miller plays Crane with mildness, hiding a deep love of Shakespeare’s work, making him a great help to the work.
Duncan Hood gives a shrewdness to William Jaggard, rogue printer and publisher of spurious copies of Shakespeare’s plays. Stooped over and blind, he commands attention with his plans and underhanded business practices, cursing out his enemies. Fred Fletcher-Jackson plays his son Isaac with an opposite morality. One of their arguments, after William’s double-crossings may have cost them an opportunity, reveals Isaac’s hatred of his father and desire to be nothing like him.
Lory Cosner plays Rebecca, John’s wife, with a quiet strength. She encourages John through the projects, urging him forward because she knows Shakespeare’s plays “are ours.” Brianna Goode brings strength as well to Alice, John’s daughter. She stands up to actors ridiculing The King’s Men, and playfully yet firmly rebuffs Jonson’s proposals. Rebecca Ellis does double duty: as Elizabeth, Henry’s wife, she offers practical advice to Henry’s idea; as Emilia Bassano Lanier, aristocrat and inspiration for Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” of the sonnets, she appears regal and imposing, yet reveals a tenderness and vulnerability, especially for the playwright. Sue Ann Staake plays Anne, Shakespeare’s widow, with kindness, while Christina Hudson plays Susannah, his daughter, as resentful of the time her father spent away from the family. Peri Walker gives Boy Hamlet a youthful arrogance, playing the title role with only a corrupted script while defending the performance against The King’s Men. She plays Marcus the printer with great comedy, shooing the actors away from the printed pages while showing their ignorance of the work.
Set Designers Richard Atha-Nicholls and Edd Miller have created a seemingly simple yet effective set. A high bench with stools in the middle serves as a tavern where the main characters meet. To the right is a slightly raised platform for the theater, the Globe and others, as well as Emilia’s reception area. Part of it unfolds for a writing desk. Offstage to the right are casks and a tapestry for Ben Jonson’s home. Properties Designer Carrie Shade has goblets and tankards for drinking, as well as old-looking papers for various versions of Shakespeare’s scripts.
Costume Coordinator Linda Swann and Wig Mistress Lory Cosner ensure everyone appears in authentic-feeling period outfits. While they are all easily distinguishable, various shades of green appear in many costumes, particularly Burbage’s and William Jaggard’s dark green long coats and Ben Jonson’s light green shirt and pants. Caps and headpieces add even more flair, especially Jonson’s feathered cap and Emilia’s bejeweled headpiece.
Lighting Designer Alex Brady blacks out the stage in between each scene. During split scenes with couples, or with action on the raised platform, spotlights shine on each particular part. Sound Designer Anthony Scimonelli throws out the sounds of ringing bells and music that feel appropriate to the period.
Richard Atha-Nicholls does a wonderful job as director. The actors navigate the stage and each other excellently. Except when reciting Shakespeare’s lines, they speak in contemporary-sounding, easy-to-understand English. They deliver Shakespeare’s lines beautifully, except when quoting the “pirated” version, which deliberately sounds comically “off.” They hit the comic moments perfectly, getting great laughter from the audience. Everything comes together to create a love letter to theater and the bonds of friendship. Go see it!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
The Book of Will plays through March 19, 2023, at Colonial Players of Annapolis – 108 East Street, Annapolis, MD. Six performances will be available for viewing via livestream; visit here for further information. For tickets ($25), call the box office at 410-268-7373 or purchase online.
COVID-19 Safety: Masks are optional for all but two performances. Masks will be required for the Sunday, March 12, and Friday, March 17 performances.