Theatre Review: ‘The Book of Will’ at Theatrical Outfit

Photos by Greg Mooney

“He was not of an age, but for all time.”

These are probably the most famous words of praise ever uttered about William Shakespeare; they were penned by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend and fellow writer, in the Preface to the First Folio.

Can you imagine a world without the timeless words, characters, and ideas of Shakespeare? It could have happened. Playwright Lauren Gunderson, Decatur-born, San Francisco based, now enjoying true national prominence, could imagine it; and she has written a beautiful, charming play called “The Book of Will,” now running at Theatrical Outfit through Sept. 9. It is must-see viewing for all true theatre lovers.

I didn’t think lightning could strike so quickly at the same theatre. You see, last December Ms. Gunderson and Margot Melon and a perfect cast delighted Atlanta audiences with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” (It was so good the Outfit is doing it again this Christmas: Hooray!)

Back to the Bard: One always winds up there anyway, right? In “The Book of Will,” we are concentrating on the years between Shakespeare’s death (1616) and the publication of the First Folio (1623), the published compilation of the immortal plays.

Shakespeare’s surviving friends and colleages are distressed that the great works could be either lost to posterity, poorly imitated and stolen, or authorship claimed by imposters: all sorts of unspeakable horrors.

So to me, “The Book of Will” is a story of love and loyality and tenacity on the part of true friends and admirers; and it’s also a paean to the magic of theatre.

It is lovingly directed by David Crowe, one of my favorite Atlanta directors (“The Elephant Man,” “Silent Sky,” “Venus in Fur,” “Equus,” to name a few), and he has assembled a superb cast to tell the story.

Shakespeare’s colleagues John Heminges (Tom Key) and Henry Condell (Doyle Rennolds) were actors in the King’s Company, along with Richard Burbage (Jeff McKerley), and they are determined that their late friend’s Will’s work be saved—properly. They are aided by the somewhat prickly father-son publishing team of William and Isaac Jaggard (Mr. McKerley again and Kyle Brumley). Incidentally, we’re very glad to have the talented Mr. Brumley back on the boards in Atlanta, after performing for three years with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

Elisa Carlson, Suehyla El-Attar, and Eliana Marianes—all playing duel roles—are marvelous, as is this cast, completed by Ryan Vo, Paul Hester, and the brilliant William S. Murphey as Ben Jonson, in an almost Falstaffian performance.

Set designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have outdone themselves; there are echoes of the Globe Theatre in their large, two-story, beautiful set. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes are gorgeous; Dan Bauman’s sound is important and just right.

The real star of the show does not make an appearance; but it is, of course, Shakespeare himself. Ms. Gunderson knows that, and she’s created suspense instead of outright conflict and makes it work. You can’t stop saying: “What if? What if?” Will’s friends knew they were doing something important, but they didn’t know it was THAT important. We do. Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom says Shakespeare did not only invent the English language; he created human nature, as we know it. Chew on that awhile.

And then hie you to church; I mean, the theatre, and see this lovely, important play.

For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.

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