8/22/2018 THE BOOK OF WILL Theatrical Outfit
ENDINGS AND LEGACIES
In the year of our liege, King James I, that year being 1619, the actor known to London as Richard Burbage has shuffled off his mortal coil and has joined his muse, William Shakespeare, in that undiscovered country that waits patiently for us, one and all. John Heminges and Henry Cordell, theatrical men "of a certain age" ponder the loss of the plays of Shakespeare, Burbage being the last who knew them word perfectly, prompt scripts of Shakespeare's REAL words (not those bowdlerized Quarto abominations enriching scoundrels and thieves up and down the Thames) being lost when the Globe burned to the ground just six short years ago.
In order to change the end of an era into the start of a legacy, Heminges and Cordell decide to publish a "compleat folio" of ALL the plays, a task as Quixotic as finding that last copy of Cardenio. Thus begins an odyssey of passionate men (and women), men (and women) devoted to enshrining their friend in the annals of literary history, even if it means turning over every privy seat-side read-file to find scraps of dialog, even if it means going to headstrong rivals for support and investment, even if it means enlisting the aid of the most corrupt printer in the kingdom.
As in all stories drenched in the demands of predestine fate, all of us these many centuries later, know the outcome and have gleaned the benefits of that outcome since our students days struggling to make sense out of early modern English and Elizabethan cultural paradigms. Benefits that take root in those dry classroom lessons will inevitably blossom when exposed to performance by dedicated and passionate actors and directors and technicians.
But still, knowing the outcome does not diminish the tale, the story of a quest with dire repercussions for lovers of language and story, but is ultimately meaningless on the grand stage of civilization and cosmic epochs. Or is it meaningless? Would a world without Shakespeare be as beautiful, as rife with metaphor and resonance, if not for these plays that multiplied the vocabulary of a burgeoning language, that brought to life figures from history and fiction that heretofore lived only as dry names and dates? Even if the fiction and the history were inexorably intertwined, as they always are when created in a propaganda-friendly cauldron of politics and dynastic will, the names and dates are still given faces and lives and joys and sorrows and high comedy and higher tragedy.
No, this is not a world I would cherish.
So, to me, the quest is not "meaningless," but is of utmost importance.
That this story has been put to paper by Lauren Gunderson, my current favorite playwright, is merely polish on the diamond. She has heretofore given full rein to Shakespearana many times, using modern settings to reexamine Bardic tropes and motifs. (Exit, Pursued by a Bear. The Taming. Toil and Trouble.) She has heretofore shown great skill in recreating "moments in history." (Emilie. Silent Sky. Ada and the Memory Engine. The Revolutionists. Christmas at Pemberly.) (And kudos for creating this many roles for men -- and women -- "of a certain age.")
That this play has been put to stage by Theatrical Outfit assures it is molded to its optimal shape. From the elegant set (by Isabel and Mariah Curley-Clay) that suggests without mimicking an Elizabethan "wooden O," to the moody and evocative lighting by Mary Parker, to the sound and music choices by sound designer Dan Bauman, all elements of production demolish thoughts of 2018 and deposit us squarely into the height of Jacobean London. Director David Crowe shows a full grasp of mood and ambience, keeping the pace lively, and ensuring that even the scenes that "overlap" are clear, that they propel the story forward.
That this play is being performed by a troupe of actors at the height of their immeasurable ability is almost an afterthought. As Heminges and Condell, Tom Key and Doyle Reynolds bring nuance and passion to characters much older than we may remember from Shakespeare in Love. They are the suns around which all the other characters orbit. (And brightest of all is when Mr. Reynolds delivers an impassioned monologue that answers the question, "Why tell stories, when God is an arbitrary and cruel Lord. Why act when we are in pain?") As their wives, Rebecca and Elizabeth, Elisa Carlson and Suehyla El-Attar are vibrantly full partners and not "tamed" help-mates. As Alice, the Heminges' daughter, Eliana Marianes is a burst of sunlight on a cloudy day -- she brings to life every scene she graces, and provides the silver lining when circumstance demands clouds. And, as expected, William S. Murphey brings to Shakespearean rival Ben Johnson an ego and a personality seemingly too large for even this stage.
In smaller multiple roles, Kyle Brumley, Paul Hester, and Ryan Vo acquit themselves admirably, and, late substitute Jeff McKErley opens the play with a larger-than-life Burbage, dominating a tavern scene, quoting Shakespeare with fire and fury, then promptly leaving the stage and dying. It is a beautiful performance, almost matched by his return as the blind and corrupt printer, William Jaggard.
So, does this play have the same ecstatically memorable ending as Ms. Gunderson's other works (the tour through the Universe that ends Silent Sky, the computer montage that ends Ada and the Memory Engine, the emotional sucker punch to the gut that ends I and You)? Being a play about the legacy of Shakespeare, you can probably expect a coda filled with words and scenes and quotes, all musically blended by voices not necessarily expected (a female Hamlet, a male Juliet). I'm not saying that's what happens. I'm saying that's what I expected.
The Scottish Play once tried to convince us of the following:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (**)
This American Play now puts the lie to that speech. The Shakespeare's plays are a series of stories told by a genius, full of music and passion, signifying everything. And The Book of Will proves once and for all that Shakepeare's life was hardly a "walking shadow," and the idea of him being "heard no more" is simply preposterous.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #TheBookOfWill #TheatricalOutfit)
** Rest assured, after it produced that quote, my laptop left the house, turned around three times on the front porch, spat on the cat, then begged to be let back in. I'm still considering my response.