by Terrance Mc Arthur
All the world’s a stage…To be, or not to be…a pound of flesh…Lord, what fools these mortals be!
William Shakespeare, right?
If nobody remembered his work, it would be like if nobody remembered…the music of the Beatles (Hmmm, isn’t there a movie…?)
Actually, it almost happened. Shakespeare’s plays were being stolen, rewritten, and mangled…until some of his friends and actors decided to print his plays in the truest versions, a collection known as the First Folio. Therein lies The Book of Will, Lauren Gunderson’s bright and uplifting dramatic comedy playing at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium in a StageWorks Fresno production through September 22.
After watching a butchered version of Hamlet, John Heminges (Mark Standriff) and Henry Condell (Aaron Spjute) start gathering scripts, sides (the lines and cues for one character in a play), and the best published versions. They deal with a self-important, usually inebriated poet laureate (Joel C. Abels) and a blind printer (Chris Carsten) as they struggle toward their goal of preserving the works of the Bard of Avon.
Standriff is a towering, silvered presence of authority, and the script gives him opportunities for giddy excitement, grief, frustration, tenderness, and purpose-driven determination. Heminges may have been a theatre manager, but he had an actor’s heart, and Standriff definitely has heart.
Spjute is the audience’s friend as Condell, the practical member of the partnership (A practical actor? Isn’t that an oxymoron?) whose clear voice lays out the steps and reality of the venture. Still, there is a mischievous twinkle about him.
Karina Balfour as Alice Heminges is the no-nonsense manager of her father’s tavern (next to the Globe Theatre). Often the thematic anchor of the piece, she mellows as the evening progresses, and even spares some interested glances for the junior printer (Michael Fidalgo).
Abels contentedly chews scenery as Ben Jonson, poet, playwright, and drunk. He’s brash and brassy, a contrast to his portrayal of Richard Burbage, the aging star tragedian of Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men. That old actor gives a lesson in acting to a cocky young performer (Dakota Simpson) who mangles the Bard in a patchwork rending of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Abels puts comprehension and respect into the words, a highlight of the play. He designed the rough-hewn set, highlighted by massive reproductions of title pages from the First Folio.
Carsten as William Jaggard exudes malevolent slime. Jaggard pirated and published bad versions of plays, and was one of the few people William Shakespeare was known to hate. Because he was one of the few printers who could handle the massive publication of 30+ plays, and because he had acquired publishing rights to a number of them, Condell and Heminges were forced to work with him. Carsten makes the irony real, as the richly attired tradesman in dark glasses (who lost his sight due to syphilis) runs roughshod over the actors who would dare to be publishers. There is an elegance about Carsten as he spews a web of deceit. It’s fun to watch.
Randall Kohlruss is fresh-faced and bubbly as a keeper of precious scripts. Michael Fidalgo is hidden fire as the theatre scribe who copied Will’s words for the actors, and practical as Isaac Jaggard, son of William, who looks on the plays as a treasure, not an investment. Simpson makes quite an impression as a bad Hamlet, and cries out lustily as the tabard-wearing announcer of plays for the Globe.
Sunshine Cappelletti is warmth and tenderness as Rebecca Heminges, supporting her husband’s quest as her health fails, and she is stately and slightly puzzled as Anne Hathaway, finally seeing and hearing the plays that her often-absent husband had created. Bridget Manders Martin is an earthy Elizabeth Condell, putting up with her husband’s work, and is a languorous “Dark Lady of the Sonnets” who tells her side of the great playwright’s work.
Director J. Daniel Herring has herded some amazing cats, bringing many talents together in a sterling piece laden with laughs. You don’t have to be a Shakespearean scholar to appreciate this play, just human.
The Fresno Art Museum and the Bonner Auditorium can be found at 2233 N. First St. in Fresno. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 559-289-6622.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. You can also find the podcast on iTunes and Google Play, and also on podbean.
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