Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Book of Will

The Adobe Theater
Review by Rob Spiegel

Also see Dean's review of The Big Sleep of Philip Marlowe

Image Courtesy of Adobe Theater
When William Shakespeare died in 1616, his plays were not considered literature. Yet many of the actors who had taken those plays onto the stage knew their worth. Two of those actors who were part of The King's Men—the acting company that Shakespeare belonged to for most of his career—took it upon themselves to preserve the master's plays.

John Heminges and Henry Condell worked together to collect 36 of Shakespeare's plays and publish them in what came to be called the "First Folio." The book has come to be considered one of the most important books in the English language. The "First Folio" was not the first collection of the plays. Eighteen of them has been previously published in individual "quarto" form. Yet the "Folio" was the first nearly comprehensive collection that offered accuracy in the text. Its publication was unprecedented.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson has taken the story of the editing and publishing of the "First Folio" and turned it into a compelling and dramatic play, The Book of Will, now in production at The Adobe Theater. I'm glad she did. A theatrical history is an appropriate vehicle to tell the story of this classic collection.

The story in The Book of Will opens a few years after Shakespeare's death. Heminges (Phil Shortell) and Condell (Harry Zimmerman) are lamenting the passing of Shakespeare's plays. A new generation of actors are presenting butchered versions of Hamlet and Othello. These two former actors decide the only solution is to gather the most accurate versions of the plays and publish them as a collection.

Gunderson goes into great detail as she chronicles the difficulties the two men faced in trying to get the collection edited accurately and published. Part of the effort included coercing a drunken Ben Johnson (Tim Crofton) to write a preface. The effort to push Shakespeare's great rival to praise the Bard's work—and their success at getting him to do it—provides some of the story's comic relief.

Gunderson goes into the weeds with her story, which is good, since these are great weeds. We see the difficulty of editing the mess of writings left after the Bard's death. There were multiple bastardizations of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, while plays such as Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It had not been produced in quarto versions. They had to be patched together piecemeal.

The script is strong and clear, which is not surprising, since Gunderson is touted as the most produced playwright of her generation. The story is complicated, yet it moves well, with the quiet action building and building. We learn about the family lives of Heminges and Condell as well as their doubts and frustrations. In the second act, tragedy strikes, but the characters push on even in darkness as they move inch by inch toward their ultimate goal of preserving Shakespeare.

Brian Hanson does a terrific job of directing these 16 characters through all their editing sweat and drama. The set design of the Globe Theatre and the Glove Tavern by Hansen is excellent, including a shelf above the action that holds many of the props we've seen in Shakespeare plays. Nice touch by the production team, which includes stage manager Jeremy Levin, Carla Cafolla on property design, Sophia Bernal on costume design, Shannon Flynn on lighting, and David B. Marling on sound.

The acting is strong throughout. Hansen has gathered many of Albuquerque's best actors, including Harry Zimmerman, Tim Crofton, Phil Shortell, Timothy J. Kupjack, Joel Miller, and Laira Magnusson.

The play belongs to Phil Shortell as John Heminges. This is the richest role in the story. Heminges' emotions and struggles are the heart of The Book of Will. Shortell delivers more than I expected. I've seen him in a number of plays in recent years, and he's always been wonderful. He has taken on some difficult roles, including Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, but I've never better him better than here. The Book of Will's Heminges offers a great range of emotions for Shortell. Who would have thought an historical drama would bring out such personal drama? Shortell delivers a tenderness that is just superb. It's also rare. Tenderness is such a quiet emotion on the stage. Shortell holds us close in Heminges' tender, breaking heart. What a thing to see—tenderness projected is such a manner you can't look away.

The Book of Will, through July 29, 2018, at the Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth St. NW, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. There will be a pay-what-you-will performance on Thursday, July 19, at 7:30 pm. General admission is $20. Admission for seniors, students, and ATG members is $17. For reservations, call 505-898-9222. For more information, visit