Decatur native Lauren Gunderson's engagingly well-read "The Book of Will" chiefly concerns a factual story about the magnanimous effort that went into gathering, publishing and preserving the timeless classics of William Shakespeare. In the process, as splendidly directed by David Crowe, Theatrical Outfit's enthusiastic new production of it also embraces and fulfills the play's intended purpose and promise as a verifiable valentine to theater itself.
Circa 1623 England, several years after the Bard’s death, the noble undertaking is led by John Heminges (Outfit artistic director Tom Key) and Henry Condell (Doyle Reynolds), two somewhat faded Globe actors with a passionate affinity for Shakespeare’s poetry and prose.
Together with a third colleague, Richard Burbage (Jeff McKerley), they were commonly known at the time as “the King’s men.” Congregating nightly at a nearby tavern for lively post-show discussion about the Globe’s latest offering, the old-school thespians scoff at the currently favored young guard — particularly the careless liberties they often take with the Bard’s revered gift for language.
The magical, ephemeral quality of theater is inherent; the possibility that Shakespeare’s writings might become obsolete or even lost forever is unimaginable. After Burbage suddenly dies, time is of the essence, if Heminges and Condell truly want to document for posterity the legacy of their friend Will, before any more firsthand observers to it pass away.
To publish or to perish, that is the question. The answer involves not only finding and collecting the work — existing of bits and pieces scattered all over the place, and in varying altered texts — but also reassembling and restoring the plays as they were originally conceived.
Dutifully joining in the epic task: Heminges’ daughter (Eliana Marianes); his wife (Elisa Carlson), as well as Condell’s (Suehyla El-Attar); several business associates (McKerley again as the publisher William Jaggard, Kyle Brumley as his son, Paul Hester as an editor); and Shakespeare’s own rival (William S. Murphey as Ben Jonson) and former mistress (El-Attar again).
Along the way, Gunderson frequently addresses both the artistic merit of Shakespeare himself and the transformative potential of theater in general. She cleverly incorporates all sorts of “inside” references to and excerpts from his plays: McKerley’s mishmash of a soliloquy (as Burbage) is one highlight; another is Brumley and Hester’s routine about “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
Later, once Heminges is forced to confront seemingly insurmountable personal grief, Key delivers his most powerful scene. Why bother with “forged fiction” in a theater, he wonders, when real life can be dramatic enough? Because the one occasionally provides a certain solace from the other, he ultimately realizes.
The cast (also including Ryan Vo in a few smaller roles) is uniformly resourceful. And the estimable Crowe, who previously staged Gunderson's "Silent Sky" for the Outfit, expertly captures and demonstrates her contrasting objectives here, striking a beautiful balance.
From the opening sounds of rustling papers that gradually turn into a round of applause, to various flights of shadow play, another effective moment depicting two scenes unfolding and overlapping concurrently around a shared table, and finally culminating in a pantomimed enactment of the Bard’s “greatest hits,” the show consistently charms and delights.
The immaculate set is designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, the elaborate lighting by Mary Parker, the intricate sound by Dan Bauman, and the period costumes by Emmie Tuttle.
Alternately fanciful and insightful, “The Book of Will” essentially impresses at every turn.
“The Book of Will”
Through Sept. 9. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m. Thursdays (Aug. 23 and 30 only); 7:30 p.m. Monday (Sept. 3 only). $20.50-$49. Balzer Theater at Herren's, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org.
Bottom line: A terrific tribute to Shakespeare — and the theater.