Chicago Theatre Review
A Love Letter to Shakespeare
The Book of Will – Northlight Theatre
Over 400 years ago, when William Shakespeare wrote and performed in Elizabethan London, the theatre was notably different. There were no artificial lights, so plays could only be performed during the daytime. Women were forbidden to perform, so female roles were played by young boys. Characters mostly wore their own clothing, with, perhaps an added robe or crown when portraying royalty. The actors were given only “sides,” or pages of the dialogue specific to their own characters. An actual, full script of the entire play was as rare as hen’s teeth. This prevented plagiarism, a common occurrence in the publishing industry at that time. Sometimes a great, seasoned actor, following a long career of playing so many roles, may have committed an entire comedy or tragedy to memory. However, when he died, the memory of that play accompanied him to the grave.
Lauren Gunderson’s historical drama, enjoying its Midwestern premiere, is filled with warmth and unexpected humor. It was inspired by the true story behind the creation of Shakespeare’s First Folio. A few years following the Bard’s passing, several of his friends gathered at a pub, still mourning his death. They knew that there would never be any more beautifully poetic plays from his pen. Even sadder, most of Shakespeare’s previous scripts had been destroyed in a fire. Only the great actor, Richard Burbage, a man who’d played all of Shakespeare’s leading roles, remembered each word of every play. But, alas, Burbage wasn’t immortal. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, they conjecture, all of Shakespeare’s plays could be found and published, exactly as he wrote them, in one, complete volume?
This exquisite play is a love letter to the genius of William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest playwright in the English language. It’s also a testament to the devotion and dedication of his friends. Based upon historical fact, this comedic drama is largely the product of Lauren Gunderson’s creative imagination. Many of the Bard’s plays had been printed previously in a series of quartos, although not necessarily accurate or true to the original scripts. Finally, in 1623, after a great deal of effort and difficulty, the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio appeared. It contained 36 of his finest histories, dramas and comedies. Only “Pericles” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” were excluded from this comprehensive volume. Gunderson’s fictionalized account depicts how and why this publication eventually, posthumously, took place. It was all thanks to the passion and dedication of Shakespeare’s friends.
John Heminges, with the devoted assistance of his daughter Alice and wife Rebecca, worked together with fellow actor and dear friend Henry Condell and his wife to gather all of Shakespeare’s works, and prepare them for publication. They all went to extraordinary lengths, searching, bartering, begging and befriending former enemies, simply to achieve their goal. This included Heminges and Condell swallowing their pride and meeting with shady script publisher William Jaggard, where they fortunately also became acquainted with his more pleasant and rational son, Isaac. Condell even humbled himself and visited wealthy Emilia Lanier, thought to be the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, to request financial aid for the project. Finally, once the Folio became a reality, both men called upon Shakespeare’s widow, Anne Hathaway, and his daughter, Susannah Hall, to share with them the final masterpiece.
Directed with grace and glory by the incomparable Jessica Thebus, this sensational cast struts and frets their hours upon a versatile, multileveled wood-hewn stage, designed with period authenticity by Richard & Jacqueline Penrod. The scenes are lit with shadowy atmosphere by designer Paul Toben. Janice Pytel has painstakingly created an array of beautiful, convincing costumes that reflect the Elizabethan social classes and walks of life. Rick Sims’ original music and sound design adds still another layer to the look and feel of this production. The talent of these unseen artists help to make this production an enjoyable evening of education and entertainment.
But without the ten gifted actors who portray these real-life characters, this play would lie lifeless on the page. The accumulated credits of these theatrical masters reflect years upon all of Chicagoland’s most respected stages. Jim Ortlieb is outstanding and heartbreaking as John Heminges. He rides a rollercoaster of emotion throughout this two-act drama, portraying this character’s life of joy and trauma. Newcomer to Chicago, but with a roster of noteworthy national credits, Gregory Linington is a revelation as Henry Condell. He’s the glue that often holds his friends together in their quest to create the First Folio. But more than that, Mr. Linington breathes an honesty into this character that bespeaks a real humanity and an affection and solidarity for his friends. Audiences will be eagerly watching for more from this terrific actor in the future.
The three wonderful actresses in this production are equally extraordinary. Dana Black, a consummate actor who always performs with grit and gusto, is magical as Alice Heminges. This young woman is not only her father’s devoted daughter, serving drinks in his pub; Alice is herself also a strong devotee of William Shakespeare. This young woman is shown to be just as instrumental in the publication of the Bards’ works. She offers a welcome strength and a feminine element to this play that’s refreshing. Ms. Black’s character also expresses a subtle romantic interest in handsome, young Isaac Jaggard (well-played by Luigi Sottile), seeing in him more than simply someone willing to print their book.
Rengin Altay brings warmth and a worldly wisdom to Rebecca Heminges. She displays much heartfelt compassion and devotion to this loving wife and mother. The always remarkable McKinley Carter makes a welcome return to Northlight as Henry Condell’s wife, Elizabeth. She, too, offers stamina and substance in the group’s search for lost scripts and the publication of the first Shakespearean collection of plays. In addition, Ms. Carter makes a grand and sophisticated “Dark Lady,” as Henry Condell reminds her of the handsome young poet and playwright who once brought so much joy to her life.
This production is also peopled by an ensemble of wonderful supporting actors They include Austin Tichenor, playing both Richard Burbage and William Jaggard; William Dick, as a humorously verbose and often inebriated Ben Jonson, among others; Thomas J. Cox portraying a raft of characters, including the delightfully nerdy Ralph Crane, Shakespeare’s devoted friend and the only man trusted to edit the Bard’s work; and the extremely versatile Sam Hubbard, who plays Marcus and an assortment of other minor roles.
Without the genius of playwright William Shakespeare we wouldn’t have such theatrical masterpieces as “Hamlet,” “As You Like It” or “Richard III.” But without the devoted friendship of John Heminges, Henry Condell and their families and friends, we wouldn’t have these works of art in the way they were originally written. And, without Lauren Gunderson’s funny, profoundly heartfelt and historically-based new drama, the world might’ve been ignorant of the trials and tribulations that went into the publication of The First Folio. This play is a Valentine aimed at every theatre lover and Shakespeare aficionado, and a must-see production for every Chicago audience.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 9-December 17 by Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.