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Review: ‘The Book of Will’ at Round House Theatre

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For the love of Shakespeare!

There’s no doubt that Americans love their Shakespeare. In fact, many consider him America’s best playwright—? Then again, many Americans also love their fake news.

Marni Penning (Rebecca Heminges), Todd Scofield (John Heminges), Katie Kleiger (Alice Heminges), and Mitchell Hébert (Ben Jonson). Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

But, if you love your Shakespeare, then you’ll love Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, now playing at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre.

By the end, you’ll discover that if not for the commitment of a few of the King’s Men (and their wives) and the greed of one of England’s biggest shysters and Folio-makers, Shakespeare’s legacy would have evaporated into London’s plague-filled air with nary a script to call his own.

And then we’d be stuck with—well, you know, real American Playwrights.

Ms. Gunderson’s The Book of Will is a fraught combination of funny and sad. The funny works well with the idealized characterizations of the likes of Richard Burbage and Ben Jonson, both given boisterously funny characterizations by one of DC’s best character actors, Mitchell Hébert.

The play’s language will make you believe that you’re in some Elizabethan pub, but the lack of bear-baiting, public executions, and shrew-taming will tell you that you’re not.

Nevertheless, the modern sensibility is lively and funny, with plenty of wit and physical humor.

It’s the death that you’ll have to endure. Presented as a part of 17th-century day-to-day life, the deaths might be historically accurate, but they aren’t comic material.

Mitchell Hébert (Ben Jonson), Katie Kleiger (Alice Heminges), Christopher Michael Richardson (Ralph Crane), Kimberly Gilbert (Elizabeth Condell), Todd Scofield (John Heminges), and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Henry Condell). Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

And that’s not to say Ms. Gunderson tries to make them funny, but what she has in The Book of Will is a comedy and as such the deaths do nothing but take our eyes off the gold.

The characters John Heminges and Henry Condell are the King’s Men who take the lead in pushing toward publication. Todd Scofield and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh give both these characters good presence as they fight to preserve the authenticity of Shakespeare’s scripts.

Their wives, Rebecca Heminges (a commanding Marni Penning) and Elizabeth Condell (a spunky Kimberly Gilbert), support their men and their families as best they can.

Heminges’ daughter Alice, a delightfully good-natured Katie Kleiger, keeps the liquor flowing as the Globe’s next-door pub mistress.

The rest of the cast includes Michael Russotto as greedy publisher William Jaggard, Brandan McCoy as Jaggard’s respectable son Isaac, Christopher Michael Richardson as Ralph Crane, the prototype of all future Shakespearean scholars, and Cody LeRoy Wilson as the Boy Hamlet, whose butchered version of “To be or not to be” ironically proved to be the prime mover of the script’s action.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Henry Condell). Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Ryan Rilette directs this historical comedy about the vicissitudes of legacy. One has to wonder how many great works of art and literature have been lost to time because of fire or famine or simply because life got too busy to care, and preserving one’s history was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

The production team, led by Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway, does an excellent job creating the play’s sprawling Elizabethan world. With costumes by Kendra Rai, lighting by Jesse Belsky, and sound and music by Matthew M. Nielson, the production’s scenography is rich in texture and good graces.

So, if you love your Shakespeare, and don’t mind a few frowns mixed in with your chuckles, The Book of Will will light up your holiday season.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

The Book of Will runs through December 24, 2017, at the Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

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