Before intellectual and artistic property attorneys existed, the works of great writers were often pirated, published in error-filled versions, or lost to posterity through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. That’s why we're lucky The Bard was buddies with such visionaries as John Heminges and Henry Condell—friends who came together with other key players to put together Shakespeare’s First Folio.
Main Street Theater’s regional premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s witty and compelling The Book of Will focuses on the sheer “will” power needed to collect the great plays of England’s most important playwright. It reminds us of the tenuous nature of art and how dependent literary history is on those committed to preserving its works.
I loved the Renaissance-era costumes, the minimalist tavern set, and the lighting design that worked particularly well with the dialogues and monologues that happen at key moments. I also loved the Tudor backdrop and how the director, Rebecca Greene Udden, made the performances the focus. But the main reasons to go to Main Street are the standout performances that combine both Renaissance English peppered with anachronistic contemporary moments, and the profound epiphanies about the precarious nature of art and history.
Set between 1619 and 1623, the play opens after William Shakespeare is dead, but his friends miss his art and his company. Thus emerges the plan to collect his wide range of plays into a folio—if only they can come up with a printer, a whole lot of money, and the right versions intact. A lot of this play is about how if there is a will there is a way, and while interesting historically, that is kind of hard to translate into action on the stage. But don’t worry—that is just the scaffolding for the outstanding performances that make this show come alive.
Joel Sandel as John Heminges is wonderful, and this role really showed his range not only as a comedic actor, but also his ability to take on the tragic moment. Dwight Clark as Henry Condell is also a delight to watch. I mean, what can I say? Main Street always has great acting in their productions, and I especially like Rutherford Cravens in his dual roles as Richard Burbage and later as the wily publisher, William Jaggard. Then again, he is a commanding presence in every role I have seen him take on.
But the scene stealer in this play must be John Feltch as the egomaniacal and alcoholic Ben Jonson. His role has the best lines, but he does not waste that opportunity to get every ounce of comedic energy out of them, and the payoff is huge. I would see this play again just to watch him on stage, and luckily for the audience, Main Street is an intimate theater, so you really get the chance to see every expression on the actors’ faces. Feltch is the one to watch.
Also great was one of my favorite (and to my mind, underrated) actresses in Houston, the hugely talented Elizabeth Marshall Black. While she plays multiple roles with ease, her portrayal of Emilia Bassano Lanier (perhaps the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets) is phenomenal, both witty and moving at the same time. In a play about collecting scripts and collating them, you have the potential to lack enough high drama to keep the audience engaged, but these winning performances prevent that tragedy from unfolding.
The Book of Will stays with you after the show is over because you are allowed to think about the swerve of history, and how great art can so easily be lost forever, and how such efforts to preserve it can be heroic. Can you imagine life without the great soliloquies of Shakespeare? This play reminds us that we don’t have to—thanks to the First Folio and the people who pulled it together. In a fit of exasperation one of the characters says, “Desire is not a plan,” but this play dramatized how desire can lead to one, and we are all better for it.
Tickets from $10. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.