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After overcoming several stumbling blocks, John Heminges (Jeffrey King), Isaac Jaggard (Jordan Barbour), Elizabeth Condell (Catherine Castellanos), Ralph Crane (Cristofer Jean)and Henry Condell (David Kelly) begin work on printing the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. (Photo by Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

Entertaining ‘Book of Will’ has deeper message between the lines

What would happen if a group of perennially sloshed thespians and their attendant coterie of madcap partners, friends and spouses were to hit upon an idea that could change the course of history? Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will” made its West Coast premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this past Saturday and, using a combination of historical fact and amusing fiction, attempted to answer that question.

A group of players known as The King’s Men have survived their beloved friend, William Shakespeare, and are reminiscing about his contributions to the culture. As they hold forth and compete with purple passages from the playwright’s principal works, they begin to realize that Shakespeare has not compiled much in the way of a consistent text that will preserve and promote his legacy. When another of the group dies suddenly, the remaining players are thrust into action in an attempt to find and safeguard all of the works of the Bard. The ensuing rascalities — bolstered by exceptional performance from the whole ensemble and a mighty pen from Gunderson — makes for a highly entertaining evening of theater.

The play is directed by Christopher Liam Moore, who, in eight seasons at OSF, is perhaps at his best when tackling this sort of high-action dramady. It is a tightly spun yarn that anchors itself in the relationships between artists, and how the less enfranchised creative class of the period — 1619, in this case — make their bones and their dollar in intimate collaboration with one another and by periodically and excruciatingly humbling themselves before the rich and powerful. The play dips weirdly into the minutiae of publishing and the politics of working capital, but at its core is a ribald look at the private trials and public tribulations of the artistic life.

The parallels between the experiences of the working actor under James the First and a union trouper in the present day are palpable; the poignancy of this correlation is made all the more moving by the fact that the festival has lost a couple of very fine actors at a relatively young age to illness over recent years. I mention this because the action on stage is not just about the roles being played; there is a pervasive sense of camaraderie between professionals that lasts throughout the show and is made profoundly clear by the end of it, with a finale that could draw tears from a stone.

Scenic designer Christopher Acebo and lighting designer Japhy Weideman have created a sensitive and remarkable environment that invites the Elizabethan Theatre herself to become a living being in the last stages of the production.

Standout performances are abundant from the ensemble, with particularly strong work coming from Kevin Kenerly (alas, his time on stage is all too short), Jeffrey King and David Kelly as the King’s Men. King is excellent as a bloviating barnstormer with a sensitive side, and Kelly is riotous as the most mild-mannered of the three, with a strong sense of morality and a peculiar romantic obsession with “Pericles,” the “Shakespeare” play with the most opaque and controversial pedigree.

As John’s wife, Rebecca, Kate Mulligan is a long-suffering delight, and in his role as Ben Jonson, the poet laureate of England, Daniel T. Parker is hilarious as a lurid, perennially intoxicated roue.

One of the major talking points of the evening was the fact that this is the first time in the history of the Elizabethan Theatre — an 83-year-old structure that has long been the center of the festival campus — that a living female playwright has been premiered there. While vaguely shocking that such a milestone would arrive so late, at a company so vaunted for inclusiveness, this moment was an important part of the luster that made for a particularly brilliant evening of theater. While “The Book of Will” might seem at first glance to be a light entertainment, it will reward those who decide to see it. It’s no wonder that Ms. Gunderson is currently the best-selling playwright in the country — her gifts, especially when showcased at so eminent a venue, are both original and bankable.

“The Book of Will” is a prize to be cherished. A closer reading is warranted.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

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