Review: “The Book of Will” in Healdsburg

William Shakespeare, who wrote a couple of plays, never had one actually published in his lifetime. They existed, often in pieces, in hand-scrawled scripts and in the memories of the actors who performed them. If not for Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues’ efforts to preserve his work for posterity, high school drama students would have a lot of free time on their hands and community theatres would have big holes in their season schedules.  

Playwright Lauren Gunderson (the Christmas in Pemberley series) won the 2018 ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award for The Book of Will, her historically-based look at the long-shot effort to keep Shakespeare’s work available for the ages. Healdsburg’s Raven Players has a production running through May 29.

After being exposed to a haplessly plagiarized version of Hamlet (“To be, or not to be, ay, there’s the point…”), the members of Shakespeare’s theatrical troupe under the leadership of Richard Burbage (Robert Bauer) decide something most be done. Burbage’s untimely death leaves it to John Heminges (Steven David Martin) and Henry Condell (Craig Peoples) to come up with a preservation plan. They decide to do something never before done – publish a book of plays. All they’ll need is money, a publisher, and a written record of all the plays. They lack all three.

Steven David Martin, Craig Peoples

How they accomplish this seemingly impossible feat makes for a very entertaining evening of theatre. Director Diane Bailey (with a COVID-necessitated assist from Martin) gathered many of the Raven regulars, added a few newcomers and a returning vet or two, placed them on a simple set that’s evocative of the time, and let Gunderson’s amusing and oft-emotional script do the talking.  

That script was well-delivered by the likes of Bauer, Martin, and Peoples. Bauer does double duty as Burbage and William Jaggard, the less-than-honorable publisher with whom they must deal and excels in both roles. Solid support was provided by Nicholas Augusta as Shakespeare rival/friend Ben Jonson, Bill Garcia as the more honorable son of Jaggard, and Aimee Drew as Heminge’s daughter Alice.   

Bailey makes effective use of the Raven space, but transitions between scenes were inconsistent and could be tightened as there are no set changes of which to speak. The play runs two and a half hours inclusive of an intermission.

Fans of Shakespeare (or Shakespeare in Love) will find The Book of Will a nice addition to the folio of Bard-related popular entertainments.  

‘The Book of Will’ runs through May 29 at the Raven Performing Arts Theater, 115 North St., Healdsburg. Thursday–Saturday, 7:30 pm; Sunday, 2 pm. $10–$25. Proof of vaccination required. Masks are recommended. 707.433.6335.

Photos by Ray Mabry

This review originally appeard in an edited version in the Healdsburg Tribune and North Bay Bohemian.

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