Review: Theatrical Outfit Resurrects the First Folio of Shakespeare in “Book of Will”

by Jody Key – Managing Editor

The term folio refers to the large size of paper, which was usually saved for more important documents like theology, history, and royal proclamations. —Folger Shakespeare LIbrary

Images taken from Norton’s 1st edition of the First Folio of Shakespeare

When William Shakespeare died in 1616, accurate written copies of his plays were scarce. In 1623, two of Shakespeare’s friends and part of the King’s Men of Shakespeare decided that his works should be printed in a folio. Forgive me for writing in the first person more than usual in this review, but like the King’s Men who felt it important enough to publish his works into the First Folio, I too have a love of Shakespeare and his works.

My father was a Ph.D. in English and a lover of Shakespeare as well. On the side, he was an editor for Norton Publishing who gifted my dad with a 1968 first edition copy of the First Folio, which he handed down to me in 1984, which I handed down to my son, Grant in 2016. Grant is studying theatre and is also a lover of Shakespeare.

Another lover of Shakespeare and a native of our great state of Georgia, Lauren Gunderson, imagined what transpired between the two men, John Heminges and Henry Condell and the publisher Isaac Jaggard. From her imagination comes The Book of Will,  a tale is woven so brilliantly, I expect the Bard is smiling from the guilded Globe in the heavens and may have been the muse who whispered in her ear as she wrote. This is a tale of life’s passion; love of family, love of theatre, and love of the written word.

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Theatrical Outfit’s presentation of this heartwarming and hilarious tale unfolds in a tavern that sits next door to the Globe Theatre and is owned by John Heminges (played by Tom Key) and run by his daughter, Rebecca (played by Elisa Carlson). The first act includes a montage of soliloquies from a handful of Shakespeare’s best works as performed brilliantly by another of the King’s men, Richard Burbage (played by Jeff McKerly). As the story unfolds, we find that the King’s Men have lived to ripe old ages and are beginning to die, and along with them, the words of Shakespeare himself. The willful Henry Condell (played by Doyle Reynolds) and the more cautious Heminges decide to embark on an endeavor to preserve The Bard’s works in a folio edition, which is a lofty and expensive effort, indeed!

Director David Crowe and his creative team have taken Gunderson’s (and Shakespeare’s) written words and allowed them to joyfully leap off the page and onto the stage. I especially enjoyed the use of shadow imagery behind the stage’s curtain used for many purposes. One of the best scenes was a shadow rendition of Shakespeare’s words put into action, mirroring the action that transpires between the characters in the story.

The dialect was authentic and meticulous, the costumes were period correct and beautifully created. The lights set the mood and tone beautifully (be sure to notice the subtle shadowed script along the floor of the stage during scenes set in the theatre).  Finally, the sound of Elizabethan Theatre Music music during scene changes and the subtle sound of crickets and night creatures helped set the scenes apart. 5 out of 5 platinum keys to this talented crew for flawless technical execution, especially for an opening night show.

All the performers were top-notch, several playing multiple characters, but a very special platinum 5 key performance goes to Jeff MrKerly, who stepped into the parts of Richard Burbage and William Jaggard at the last minute on Wednesday for George Contini, who was unfortunately out with an injury. Jeff’s ability to be 99% off-book at such short notice and deliver top-notch performances of the two characters is a testament to his expertise and professionality.

Tom Key’s performance as John Heminges and Doyle Reynolds as Henry Condell drive the story. Where Heminges is the cautious business manager who leads with his head, Condell is the passionate thespian who leads with his heart. Elisa Carlson as Rebecca Heminges, Eliana Marianes as Alice Heminges, and Suehyla El-Attar as Elizabeth Condell add women’s perspective and femininity to the subject matter. The rest of the cast rounds out the performance playing multiple characters and doing a splendid job.

I highly recommend this show to everyone, Even if you haven’t seen much Shakespeare, you will be able to follow the story and identify with the humanity of these characters. You might even gain a new appreciation for the words of the most influential poet and playwright of the last 5 centuries.

I had an empty seat beside me last night. I like to think it was reserved for my dad, who probably spends his time in the guilded Globe of the heavens and pays a penny for the pit to see greats like Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Thanks to Shakespeare for his wit and writings,  to Heminges and Condell for giving the world The First Folio, to my dad, Joseph F. Tuso, for giving me his First Folio, a to Lauren Gunderson and Theatrical Outfit for creating and executing The Book of Will, a story that educates and touches the heartstrings.

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Image taken from Norton’s 1st Edition of The First Folio of Shakespeare

The Book of Will plays at Theatrical Outfit from now until September 9th. Get tickets at www.theatricaloutfit.org/boxoffice/tickets/ and please consider purchasing season tickets.

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