Saving Shakespeare, word by word

Ashland's daring and delightful "The Book of Will" tells the tale of the Bard's company rescuing his plays (and themselves) after his death

ASHLAND — It’s no secret that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival loves Shakespeare’s plays. The company was created 83 years ago to perform his works, and has been doing so ever since. In the past decade, though, it’s also demonstrated a passion for stories about the most famous playwright who’s ever lived. In 2009 the festival staged the world premiere of Bill Cain’s Equivocation; then the movie-turned-play Shakespeare in Love last season; and now popular playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will — as much a tribute to the players who loved the Bard as a tribute to the Bard himself.

This production — one of three that opened in June on the stage of the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre, the largest of the festival’s three performance spaces — is perhaps the perfect play for OSF audiences, who geek out on their own love of the Bard and can wholly relate to characters like John Heminges (Jeffrey King), whose wife, Rebecca (Kate Mulligan) tells him, “Most people go to church. You went to the Globe.” And the cast is filled with OSF veterans (plus a couple of newer faces) who have a love of Shakespeare in common with their audiences.

Henry Condell (David Kelly) and John Heminges (Jeffrey King) are pleased by the reaction of Anne Hathaway (Kate Mulligan) to the newly completed folio of her late husband’s plays. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

King, David Kelly, and Kevin Kenerly — with 66 years at OSF among them — bring the last of The King’s Men (the acting company of which Will was a part) to life as The Book of Will opens. It will be King’s Heminges and Kelly’s Henry Condell who do the bulk of the work here. These are the two friends who ensured Will’s words would live on. But Kenerly gets to shine brightest in the opening scene: He portrays Richard Burbage, after all, the head of the King’s Men and the star of Shakespeare’s plays. Burbage is angry about how folks are performing Shakespeare since Will’s death, and he shows off to one young actor in a tavern, giving Kenerly opportunity to perform bits from some of the great plays of the canon. It’s glorious to see Kenerly — who’s played Romeo, Hotspur, Macduff, Orlando, Oberon, and many others — show off his own craft, and Burbage’s.

What follows is devastating. But without that devastation, the action of the play (and the reality) might never have happened. Heminges and Condell — along with the magnificent women in their lives, two wives and a daughter — make it their life’s work to publish a folio of the correct versions of Shakespeare’s plays, and only those written by him (no Pericles, a fact that Kelly, as Condell, gets to have great fun with for the delight of the audience).

Without this effort, we would likely never know The Tempest, Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, King John, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, and about 12 other plays originally published in this First Folio. It’s an important piece of history that deserves to be told, and told well. Who better to tell it than the fine creators and performers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, under the skillful direction of Christopher Liam Moore?

Ben Jonson (Daniel T. Parker) reveals his substantial eulogy to Richard Burbage, much to the bemused surprise of his fellow mourners (Ensemble). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Kelly and King give fine performances, but Gunderson’s version of events puts women at the heart of this story. Mulligan’s Rebecca helps motivate and humanize King’s fierce and rational John. Catherine Castellanos brings reason and strength to Elizabeth Condell and helps guide her husband, Henry’s, actions and decisions. And Kate Hurster’s Alice has perhaps the most influence on all the play’s men, and shows us that young women in Shakespeare’s day must have appreciated his early feminism and fair portrayal of them on stage.

The entire cast is wonderful, and most do at least double duty. Cristofer Jean is especially fine as Ralph Crane, Shakespeare’s first editor, who might have singlehandedly saved several plays. Jean gives Crane a quirky and irreverent touch that adds to both the humor and the soul of the character, and of the play itself. And Daniel T. Parker’s drunken Ben Jonson is delightfully over-the-top — he ironically rages of Shakespeare: “Not every play needs a goddamn clown!” Oh, but it does, and Jonson makes a fantastic one here.

Moore has done something tremendous with this production, on a deceptively simple set designed by Christopher Acebo. This play is about what Will’s words meant to his friends and contemporaries, which is, of course, why they were saved. But, in an utterly innovative blending of the high-tech and the Jacobean, Moore wraps things up by highlighting the contemporary impact of what these men did: what these words have meant in the lives of these actors (both those in their third seasons at OSF and those in their twenty-seventh), and what they mean to all of us. I won’t give too much away other than to say it’s a powerful, stirring tribute to Shakespeare; to Burbage and Heminges and Condell; to this marvelous cast and the company; and to OSF and what it has given Oregon audiences — thanks, in no small part, to the impossible (no … improbable) actions of this play.

Alice (Kate Hurster), Henry Condell (David Kelly), Richard Burbage (Kevin Kenerly) and John Heminges (Jeffrey King) fondly remember the days with their friend Will. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2018

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