There was an exuberant, laudatory noise within A Noise Within for The Book of Will. An immediate standing ovation, accompanied by cheers, followed the play’s powerful, moving ending and the two-plus hours leading up to it. Laura Gunderson’s thrilling First Folio origin story is filled with inside jokes and nuggets for Shakespeare aficionados. Even those with only a light dusting of Bard awareness will enjoy the richly painted characters and absorbing story. They will also learn a lot of history.
Shakespeare’s theater company, known as The King’s Men, continues on without him after his death, but his closest friends Richard Burbage (Frederick Stuart), Henry Condell (Jeremy Rabb) and John Heminges (Geoff Elliott) still mourn him. They note that there is no definitive collection of his plays, a fact made worse by pirated, incomplete and inaccurate published versions from unscrupulous publisher William Jaggard (Stuart), whose son Isaac (Stanley Andrew Jackson) has joined the business.
The King’s Men complain that theater companies are performing “rubbish,” “mediocrity,” and “fobbing hackery” containing major flaws (“The lady doth protest so very much”…“To be or not to be, Aye there’s the point.”). Worst of all, these performances are selling out. It’s an insult to their friend Will!
King’s Men lead actor Burbage knows every word of every play (“That’s the only way you get to tell everyone else what to do.”). He agrees to lead the charge, then gives an impassioned “best of Shakespeare” performance that gets it all right.
Intriguing plot twists and tension belie a foregone conclusion known to all who took high school English—Shakespeare’s plays were indeed published after his death. But as to how…ah, there’s the rub.
The team’s motto – “publish or vanish” – makes clear the urgency of their endeavor. Heminges and Condell, along with Heminges’ daughter Alice (Nicole Javier), King’s Men prompter Ed Knight (Jackson), and scribe Ralph Crane (Kasey Mahaffy) seek out actor sides (pages with only their own lines), prompt books, early drafts, and lovingly saved scrolls to ensure accuracy and meticulously build the collection.
England’s Poet Laureate Ben Jonson (Alex Morris in the performance I saw) rants about his literary rival, but in the end contributes to the success of the project.
Condell’s wife Elizabeth (Trisha Miller) is a devotee of the comedies, and indeed, don’t we all need more comedy these days? Book of Will is a comedy, with tragic elements. Gunderson manages an all-of-the-above script that is also an ode to friendship, preserving legacy and, above all, the theater. “They lived well who lived onstage.”
Directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott & Geoff Elliott, and a deceptively spare and elegant space designed by Frederica Nascimento, lift the talented cast to remarkable heights as they portray the Elizabethan characters while retaining the energy of the now. A must see.
Book of Will runs through June 4 at A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena. Show times are Thursdays at 7:30 (dark May 13), Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pn and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm.. Tickets cost $25 and up and are available here. An INsiders Discussion Group will be held on Tuesday, May 16, from 6:00-8:00pm on Zoom ($38 per individual or $45 per household).