Review: THE BOOK OF WILL at Northlight Theatre

Review: THE BOOK OF WILL at Northlight Theatre

Pictured: Ensemble members of THE BOOK OF WILL. Photo by Liz Lauren.  

By Aaron Lockman

THE BOOK OF WILL takes place on a magnificently crafted set, designed by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod — a gorgeous, towering maze of stained glass, darkened wood, and tall staircases — that evokes the height and rustic majesty of the Globe Theater without imitating it outright. We begin with a truly awful recitation of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, from a bastardized quarto version that sounds nothing like the speech we know. One wouldn’t think of this as a promising beginning, but we immediately cut to three members of the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s original theater troupe, drinking in a nearby pub and lamenting about how awful the Hamlet they just saw was. What follows is an incredible opening scene, as Burbage (played by a delightfully cantankerous Austin Tichenor) parades around the pub, reenacting scenes from the glory days, while Henry Condell (the sensitive one, played by an intense and heartwarming Gregory Linington) and John Heminges (the pessimistic one, played by Jim Ortlieb with incredible pathos) look on in amusement and insult the nauseating performance they’ve just witnessed. This is an incredibly gratifying thing to see, as a little-acknowledged fact is that making fun of bad theatre with your drunken friends is often just as fun as seeing something good.

But the play isn’t just about relatable theatrical geekery. By and large, THE BOOK OF WILL, directed by Jessica Thebus, is a surprisingly heartwarming treatise on the nature of death. As the King’s Men dwindle, taken one by one by disease or old age, the remaining members realize that soon, their dear friend Will’s words could be lost forever. All that magic they conjured in their youth, all that unforgettable raw power they created by performing those words — all lost to the sands of time because nobody bothered to write all of it down in one place. So, they decide to do just that.

On the surface, THE BOOK OF WILL, is a dramedy about Shakespeare’s friends trying to get the First Folio published. And on that front, it succeeds tremendously. Playwright Lauren Gunderson does an excellent job of balancing historical accuracy with the artful building of lovable, dynamic characters. The historically accurate part is fascinating in its own right: the First Folio wasn’t so much written down as it was cobbled together from disparate puzzle pieces. Since theaters didn’t keep full scripts – giving each actor only his own lines decreased the chances of creative theft — the King’s Men had to do some extensive digging. From inaccurate quartos published by other parties, to first drafts that miraculously survived fires, to actors’ sides kept in closets over the years, the compiling alone was daunting. And then getting it published! I don’t want to spoil too much, but suffice it to say that modern copyright law seems practically straightforward compared to the byzantine maze that was the Elizabethan world of publishing.

But of course we don’t watch the play for just that; the characters are why we stay in our seats. And what this production hammers home from the get-go is that these people are theater geeks, just like us. They each have their own distinct and beautifully drawn personalities, yes. But more importantly, they form their own opinions about Shakespeare’s work, and have their own individual connections, quirks, and preferences. My absolute favorite recurring gag is how Henry consistently brings up how he really liked Pericles, even as everyone groans and shouts at him that nobody even likes that play. The wives of each of the King’s Men, limited in how much action they can take in the play by the patriarchal structures of the era, nonetheless have many lovely moments throughout as they explain how they connected to so many of Will’s female characters. Rebecca Heminges (played by a sharp and witty Rengin Altay) remarks on how she’s memorized nearly all of Beatrice’s part from Much Ado, while Elizabeth Condell (played by an ebullient McKinley Carter) owns one of the most heartwarming moments of the evening in the simple remark to the other women, “I always liked it when it rhymed!” And Alice Heminges (played by Dana Black, and probably the most fictionalized character in the play seeing as we know very little about John Heminges’ daughter) is a constant charming presence as the thoroughly intelligent and fierce barmaid, who grew up watching her father in these plays, and who banters and holds her own in conversations with the men just as a Shakespeare character would.

(I can’t possibly go through each actor, but there’s not a weak link in the chain here. Most of them swivel believably between multiple characters with pinpoint precision, and all of them bring the warmth and joy necessary for the play’s admittedly dry premise to soar and become a thing of beauty.)

Ultimately, though, this is still a play about death – and the deaths in this play are felt harder than any onstage deaths in I’ve seen in my recent memory. The King’s Men are given clear reminders throughout that the end is coming for all of us. Indeed, my only criticism stems from the fact that oftentimes, the deaths happen without clear medical reason. Of course, we are sheltered from frequent, reasonless death in a way Elizabethans were not, and these characters move forward more quickly than we do, because they have to.

But instead of pushing for themselves to be remembered, like so many poets of the era who wrote in order to feel immortal, the King’s Men and their wives push for Will. They fight to preserve the words of their friend, despite hardship after hardship. Why?
The success of THE BOOK OF WILL doesn’t exactly come from the suspense of seeing whether our heroes will publish the Folio: we obviously know right from the onset they’ll succeed. Instead, their struggle is a remarkable metaphor for why we keep coming back to the theater, to Shakespeare, even after all this time. We know how each story is going to end, that Romeo and Juliet will miss each other by minutes, that Richard III and Macbeth will get their comeuppance, that Hamlet won’t act until it’s too late. But we relive these stories again and again because we want to see how other people interpret them, what Shakespeare means to this actor, to that director, to this set designer, to the audience member sitting next to us.

As Henry remarks, “With him gone and a legacy on the line? We are Will!” Shakespeare’s plays — and indeed all great works of art — belong to all of us. Great art is worth preserving not because it’ll last forever (and it won’t, even Shakespeare will fade eventually), but because it connects us with each other. Likewise, the joy in this play isn’t in the details of book publishing in the seventeenth century, but in the warm human moments that seem to drift through the centuries by candlelight and land softly in the audience’s outstretched hand – warding off the cold, even after you leave the theater.

The tickets are on the pricey end, and Northlight is a bit of a trek from Chicago if you don’t have a car – but nonetheless, THE BOOK OF WILL is a resounding triumph. If you are a Shakespeare nerd, you will love this play. If you are dragged to see this play by a Shakespeare nerd, you will fall in love regardless.

THE BOOK OF WILL runs through December 17th. For more information visit northlight.org.

About author

Aaron Lockman

Aaron Lockman is an actor and playwright recently graduated from Columbia College Chicago. You can see him in The Living Room’s upcoming DaDa Solo show, and you can hear his voice in the Audible productions of Locke and Key and The X-Files, as well as on the podcast The Audio Diary of Aaron Lockman

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