Review: “The Book of Will”

Cast members Dana Black, Rengin Altay, Gregory Linington, Jim Ortlieb, McKinley Carter in a scene from “The Book of Will” now playing at the Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 17. – Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through Dec. 17
Tickets: $30-$81
Phone: 847-673-6300

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Director Jessica Thebus could not have assembled a finer cast for the Midwest preimere of “The Book of Will” at Northlight Theatre. The problem is that Lauren Gunderson’s play just isn’t as dramatic as one would expect, despite an historical subject laden with possibilities.

Working from the relatively few facts available, Gunderson (“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”) has written an account of the creation of the “First Folio” of Shakespeare’s plays, which was published in 1623, seven years after his death. His friends and fellow members of the King’s Men, actor-turned-manager John Heminges (Jim Ortlieb) and actor Henry Condell (Gregory Linington), spearheaded the effort championed by leading actor Richard Burbage (Austin Tichenor), who apparently knew all the plays by heart but unfortunately died in 1619 before the project got underway.

With Burbage gone and some of the scripts lost in a fire, a big challenge for Heminges and Condell is getting copies of all the scripts, especially since it was a common practice to give each actor only his own part to prevent plagiarism. Gunderson devotes several scenes to this prosaic process of bringing together often unreliable quartos, copies found squirreled away in closets and private collections, and so forth. For example, persnickety company scribe Ralph Crane (Thomas J. Cox), who becomes editor of the collection, contributes favorites he kept for himself or saved from the blaze.

The innovation here is the important—arguably invented– role played by Heminges daughter Alice (Dana Black), who runs the tavern adjacent to the Globe theater, and both men’s wives, Rebecca Heminges (Rengin Altay) and Elizabeth Condell (McKinley Carter). Besides finding some of the plays, they provide constant support and encouragement, and a rather repetitious pattern emerges of the discouraged men doubting the value of the book and their ability to complete it and the women reassuring them that they can and must.
The other two main impediments are lining up a publisher and raising the money for paper (folios are larger than quartos), ink, and all that. When other publishers in London refuse them, Heminges and Condell are induced to accept an offer from William Jaggard (Tichenor), who they despise for publishing a partial collection without Shakespeare’s permission. Promises from Jaggard’s son, Isaac (Luigi Sottile), who’s actually in charge since his father now is blind, tip the balance. Then, however, printing is halted for lack of funds, and the men turn to Emilia Lanier (Carter), said by some to be the Dark Lady of the sonnets, for help.

Other historical figures who show up range from playwright Ben Jonson (William Dick), who’s tapped to write a tribute to his rival for the book, to Shakespeare’s widow Anne Hathaway (Altay), who is brought the presentation copy when it’s finished. Gunderson has fun portraying Jonson as a lush and, I guess, extrapolates backwards from his homage to have him recount how he was brought to tears by staying up all night to read all the Bard’s plays in preparation.

In some cases, though, Gunderson has little more than birth and/or dates to go on, so they fuel her hypotheses. The death of Burbage in 1619 and William Haggard in 1623 are key plot points, but most crucial is the death of Rebecca Heminges in 1619. I suspect the playwright posits a happy marriage by the fact that she and John had 14 children (the Condells had nine) and that he asked in his will to be buried near her, and his grief over her death is the play’s most emotional element.

There’s even a scene of Rebecca’s ghost comforting John on the Globe stage, just one aspect of what is a love letter to the theater. Naturally, Shakespeare is quoted liberally by the members of the King’s Men, and another company that bastardizes his work gets a good drubbing. There’s a running gag about “Pericles” and a dispute about permission to use “Troilus.” On the other hand. Gunderson avoids delving into specific editing questions that would probably be of interest only to Shakespeare scholars.

Although “The Book of Will” comes across as rather repetitive and episodic, Thebus’ careful direction and the all-around excellent acting redeem it. Ortlieb stands out as the rather weary and melancholy Heminges and is complemented by Linington’s livelier Condell. Black gets to shine as Alice, particularly in the early scenes.

Richard and Jacqueline Pernod’s scenic design, Paul Toben’s lighting, and Janice Pytel’s costumes do a good job of bringing the period to life. If we don’t really feel like we’re stepping back in time nearly 400 years to watch one of the greatest books in the English language being put together, with a little suspension of disbelief, we come close.

SHORT RUN

“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”

A scene from “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”now playing at : Cadillac Palace Theatre through Dec. 3.

RECOMMENDED

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through Dec. 3
Tickets: $18-$100
Phone: 800-775-2000

For solid holiday fare in a nostalgic vein, consider the touring production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Based on the iconic 1954 movie musical about a pair of army-turned-showbiz buddies who help their former general save his Vermont inn and find love in the process, the show showcases a host of wonderful Berlin songs, among them “Happy Holiday,” “Sisters,” “Snow,” “Blue Skies,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “How Deep Is the Ocean” and, of course, the title number.

Directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner, whose dance routines conjure Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line,” this version benefits from strong leads and some fine supporting performances. Both Sean Montgomery as Bob Wallace (the Bing Crosby role in the movie) and Kerry Conte as Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney in the film) conjure the period beautifully when they’re singing, and she has a lovely liquid speaking voice, too. They’re well matched by Jeremy Benton as Phil Davis and Kelly Sheehan as Judy Haynes, who make the most of the big dance numbers “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” “Blue Skies,” and “I Love a Piano.”

Standouts in supporting roles include Conrad John Schuck, who brings a convincing veracity to General Waverly, and Karen Ziemba as his well-meaning busy-body “concierge” Martha Watson, whose “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” would do Ethel Merman proud. As the general’s granddaughter, Susan, Makayla Joy Connolly (alternating with Bella Yantis) really belts it out, and Cliff Bemis reprises with aplomb the part of Ezekiel Foster he originated on Broadway. Kudos, too, to the entire singing and dancing ensemble, even if the acting is very broad, and the sound mix is sometimes imperfect.