Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Book of Will
Set in 1619, a few years after Shakespeare's death, the play follows the few remaining members of the King's Men, Shakespeare's theatre company, who find themselves competing against unlicensed and heavily plagiarized and watered-down productions of Shakespeare's plays. Upon the death of a member who had almost all of the plays memorized, they realize the majority of Shakespeare's works are on the verge of dying with him since they aren't published and very few final versions of the scripts were written down. To prevent the unlicensed and edited versions from becoming what Shakespeare is remembered for, they set out to save Shakespeare's works by publishing them in a collection so they won't disappear and that they'll be around for future generations. However, finding copies of the plays, securing the funding, and trying to get the publishing rights proves difficult when you don't know if the published collection will even sell.
Gunderson has beautifully crafted her play with rich characters and a taut plot that not only focuses on the plight to save Shakespeare's works but also gives a general idea of how the publishing business in England worked at the time and how the group had to navigate their way to gain access to the rights to publish the plays and also fund the publication of the collection. Much like the drama and intrigue that so perfectly unfolds in the musical 1776, where you actually think there is a chance the Declaration of Independence won't be passed, Gunderson layers in tension and plot twists so we aren't certain what will happen, even though we all know that the collection of Shakespeare's plays was successfully printed.
Under Melissa Rain Anderson's expert direction, the cast create realistic characters full of nuance and dimension. There is a wonderful combination of drama and humor in the play, and all cast members do a fine job navigating their way through the requirements of the piece without their performances ever seeming unnatural or too over the top. Anderson has staged the piece expertly, with great use of Douglas Clarke's gorgeous, multi-layered wooden set. The rest of the creative elements are also top-notch, including Ashley Gamba's beautiful, period-perfect costumes and Nathaniel White's evocative lighting.
Grant Goodman and Michael Kary are a winning duo as Henry Condell and John Heminges, the two leading members of the King's Men who are the driving force behind the publication of the collection of plays. Gunderson bakes moments of introspection and quiet reflection into the play and Goodman and Kary are excellent in making those moments shine; the scene the two have in act two that shows the friendship, bond, and brotherly love they share is extremely moving. With a strong drive and fierce determination, Bonnie Beus Romney is terrific as the daughter of Heminges.
In supporting roles, Scott Davidson is simply brilliant as both Richard Burbage, the King's Men member who dies suddenly, and William Jaggard, a shady man the group is forced into business with; Davidson's delivery of Burbage's monologue that incorporates pieces of famous dialogue from more than a dozen Shakespeare plays is superb. As a few characters, including Shakespeare's poet rival Ben Johnson, Tony Blosser is hilarious, but he also makes Johnson a man layered and fraught with emotions. Regina Pugh and Jodie Weiss play the wives of Heminges and Condell, respectively, as well as a few cameo roles, and both are wonderful. As one of the King's Men appointed to edit the manuscripts for publication, Seth Tucker creates a rich character infused with conviction. Dean Mitchell Kelldorf does an excellent job creating two very distinct characters, including the son of Jaggard, and Katie Calderone shines in a few small roles.
The Book of Will is a beautiful play that celebrates Shakespeare, the theatre, the friendships of artists, and the drive to honor the memory of a man so he's not forgotten. Phoenix Theatre Company's production is a love letter for fans of the theatre and the works of both Shakespeare and Gunderson.
The Book of Will runs through September 18, 2022, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or by call 602-254-2151.
Director: Melissa Rain Anderson
Cast (in alphabetical order):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.