William Shakespeare never had a play actually published in his lifetime. They existed, often in pieces, in hand-scrawled scripts and in the memories of the actors who performed them. If not for Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues’ efforts to preserve his work, high school drama students would have a lot of free time on their hands and community theaters would have big holes in their season schedules.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson (the Christmas in Pemberley series) won the 2018 ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award for The Book of Will, her historically-based look at the long-shot effort to keep Shakespeare’s work available for the ages. Healdsburg’s Raven Players has a production of the play running through May 29.
After being exposed to a butchered version of Hamlet (“To be, or not to be, ay, there’s the point…”), members of Shakespeare’s theatrical troupe, under the leadership of Richard Burbage (Robert Bauer), decide something must be done. Burbage’s untimely death leaves it to John Heminges (Steven David Martin) and Henry Condell (Craig Peoples) to come up with a preservation plan. They decide to do something never before done—publish a book of plays. All they’ll need is money, a publisher and a written record of all the plays. They lack all three.
How they accomplish this seemingly impossible feat makes for a very entertaining evening of theatre. Director Diane Bailey (with a Covid-necessitated assist from Martin) gathered many of the Raven regulars, added a few newcomers, placed them on a simple set that’s evocative of the time and let Gunderson’s amusing and oft-emotional script do the talking.
That script was well-delivered by leads Bauer, Martin and Peoples. Bauer does double duty as Burbage and William Jaggard, the less-than-honorable publisher with whom they must deal. Solid support was provided by Nicholas Augusta as Shakespeare rival/friend, Ben Jonson; Bill Garcia as the more honorable son of Jaggard; and Aimee Drew as Heminge’s daughter, Alice.
Bailey makes effective use of the Raven space, but transitions between scenes were inconsistent and could be tightened, as there are no set changes of which to speak. The play runs two-and-a-half hours, inclusive of an intermission.
Fans of Shakespeare (or Shakespeare in Love) will find The Book of Will a nice addition to the folio of Bard-related popular entertainments.
‘The Book of Will’ runs through May 29 at the Raven Performing Arts Theater, 115 North St., Healdsburg. Thursday–Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm. $10–$25. Proof of vaccination required. Masks recommended. 707.433.6335. raventheater.org