Lauren Gunderson’s 2018 play “The Book of Will”—continuing at Pasadena’s A Noise Within (ANW) through June 4—dramatizes how William Shakespeare’s plays were first compiled and published years after his 1616 death by the surviving members of his acting troupe. ANW’s production is sharply compelling, with well-timed humor and poignant depth, making it both interesting and highly entertaining.
Who knew collecting all of Shakespeare’s nearly 40 plays could have been so fraught? Or that determining which words were authentic so soon after his death would have been so difficult? The play begins with a case-in-point performance of a young actor (Kelvin Morales) reciting Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy—except the lines are weirdly and amusingly amiss.
This angers three members of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, The King’s Men, as they drink in a tavern opining about how other acting companies have been routinely mangling the playwright’s language in the years since his passing.
One of the King’s Men, Richard Burbage (Frederick Stuart), starts masterfully reciting his speeches through the various plays he performed in, giving us a powerful glimpse of the feelings Shakespeare’s language provokes. Henry Condell (Jeremy Rabb) realizes it’s up to the three of them to salvage what they can of Shakespeare’s written plays before they, too, pass away.
So begins a witty and surprisingly suspenseful journey of the men, along with the women in their lives, collecting anything Shakespeare—scraps of play speeches, hidden full-play scrolls, published but potentially inaccurate “quartos” (smaller books) of his plays—to sort through and compile in the first larger “folio” of his collected works.
The urgency of preserving words in the face of death haunts the play, the set itself (designed by Frederica Nascimento) featuring reams of folded paper tucked into cubbies, scrolls scattered across wooden tables and large hanging page-proofs. And loss pervades the characters’ lives as well—unexpected and poignant character deaths, mentions of dead children—lending an existential angst to their endeavor.
But there is much well-timed humor, too, as expertly directed by ANW co-artistic directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Shakespeare’s contemporary and rival Ben Jonson (Chuma Gault, understudied by Alex Morris) is portrayed as a pompously intellectual clown, self-aggrandizing and unbearably verbose—but still sympathetic to the cause.
And folio editor Ralph Crane (Kasey Mahaffy) is hilariously precise as the original Shakespeare superfan who abashedly admits to having stashed away precious play scrolls for his own private enjoyment. A “who’s on first” type of exchange he has with publisher Isaac Jaggard (Stanley Andrew Jackson) about a lost Shakespeare play called “Love’s Labour ‘s Won” is priceless.
The production also showcases the expressive skills of its many veteran ANW actors. Rabb is excellently clear and natural as the unassuming Henry, who leads the charge to preserve the plays, even soliciting funding from Lady Lanier (Trisha Miller), the sumptuously dressed (costumes by Angela Balogh Calin) “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a poet in her own right.
And all the other leads clearly enjoy their roles—from Stuart as the passionately brash Burbage, to Elliott as the more conservative John Heminges, to Deborah Strang as John’s wise fruit-mongering wife, to a bright Nicole Javier as his tough tavern-running daughter—making the play a pleasure to experience.
Ultimately, “The Book of Will” is a tribute to Shakespeare’s words, culminating in a final scene in which these accomplished actors recite his lines with an ardency that may move you to tears. I first experienced this play at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2019, and it was good then, but ANW’s compelling staging (including resonant music by Robert Oriol and textured lighting by Ken Booth) truly do it justice—a rich and vibrant production, not to be missed!
“The Book of Will” continues at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, through June 4, with performances Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25 for adults and $18 for students. For tickets and information, including talk-backs and student matinees, call (626) 356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org. Run time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission.