Belt-Daniels: 'The Book of Will' makes for fun summer night

The cast from “The Book of Will,” by playwright Lauren Gunderson, performs in a scene at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
The cast from “The Book of Will,” by playwright Lauren Gunderson, performs in a scene at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

The moon, the whippoorwills, the bats and exquisite acting are guaranteed.

A popular venue for more than 40 years, the American Players Theatre selects shows that sell out fast. Their presentations, true to their Shakespearean mission, include everything from “MacBeth” to the newer historical comedy, “The Book of Will,” with a sprinkling of other works this season (“Fences,” “She Stoops to Conquer,” “Twelfth Night,” “A Doll House” and “A Doll House 2”). All are executed marvelously at the beautiful outdoor Hill Theater or smaller, indoor Touchstone Theater.

A perfect night under the stars in the remote Wisconsin woods was our ticket for “The Book of Will,” by playwright Lauren Gunderson. It’s set in 1619 in London. Two of the King’s Men players, John Heminges and Henry Condell, are gathering and trying to publish William Shakespeare’s plays into a single volume (aka Folio).

As intimates of Shakespeare and “seasoned lion of the stage” Richard Burbage, their deaths have brought the realization that the plays are being plagiarized, stolen, bungled and re-adapted “injuriously and incorrectly.”

It doesn’t sound like the makings for a comedy, but through all the anxieties, toll and losses, the preservation endeavor takes on the two leading actors, and it is a brilliant example of a human narrative comedy laced with friendship and dedication. Thank heavens, Heminges and Condell persevered – an improbable task well worth the undertaking for future generations.

The APT production, under the direction of Tim Ocel, is a skillful, engaging, adeptly played comedic docudrama. The entire ensemble, from the youngest fruit-selling child to the eldest publisher, exudes talent. Best of all, you don’t have to “get” or be a Shakespeare aficionado to follow the unfolding plot (although there is a delicious recurrent joke involving Pericles, but no real preknowledge is needed). This is a play about the preservation of truth.

There are three scenes in particular that I revere: the Act One opening with Burbage bemoaning what’s happened to Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet,” the Act Two opening with Condell and Heminges’ exchange about life and death and the theater, and the subsequent almost Bud Abbott and Lou Costello “Who’s on First” routine between Ralph Crane and Isaac Jaggard.

But this is a masterfully written play, with plenty of thought-provoking and comedic scenes.

Most of the energy, vibrancy and flawlessness can be attributed to the five leads. Heminges, as portrayed by James Ridge, is the logical, serious, touching, generous retired actor and financial manager of the King’s Men. Ridge is an incredibly likable and believable actor. He is superbly matched by counterpart Jim DeVita, who plays Condell, the feisty, classy and popular actor. DeVita’s chemistry with everyone onstage is evident, but especially and comfortably with Ridge.

La Shawn Banks, an enormously talented actor, is the powerful, roaring Burbage, and you will be so sorry when he makes his exit. Poet Laureate Ben Jonson, as acted by David Daniel, is a luscious, comedic, larger-than-life, egotistical friend and rival of Shakespeare, who also is an amazingly drunken, weepy sentimentalist.

Both Banks and Daniel are the subtle scene stealers of the piece.  

And as brought to life by Melisa Pereyra, Alice Heminges is every bit the independent, spunky, witty, determined daughter of John Heminges you hope and want her to be. 

Acknowledgment also must be given to Tracy Michelle Aronold in the duo roles of wife Rebecca Heminges/Lady Lanier; Triney Sandoval as the shady Fleet Street publisher William Jaggard; Jeb Burris as the sensitive, moral love interest Jaggard; and Tim Gittings as Ralph Crane, the humble scribe of the King’s Men who just might have saved the day. Their characters all are played to perfection.  

Designed by Nathan Stuber, the set is simple, wooden and heavily appreciative of the Globe Stage and alehouse. Holly Payne’s costume design is definitely period and Shakespearean, rich in doublets, capes, boots and corsets.

So thank you, Heminges and Condell, for what you did through memory and reconstruction of documents; thank you, Lauren Gunderson, for so wittily and entertainingly bringing the event to our attention.

“For his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost.”

If you are worried about the APT outdoor amphitheater, don’t be. There’s free bug spray, concession stands, gift shops, picnic areas, real restrooms, comfortably padded seats and green-shirted, helpful staff everywhere. You don’t have to do the curvy hillside 10-minute walk through the oak-wooded woods to the theater; there are shuttle buses from the parking lots. And, naturally, there is a contingency weather plan.

So go! Follow the Chicago; Madison, Wisconsin; and from all around the country audiences (100,000 a season) for a professional repertoire of classics and outstanding theater.

• Regina Belt-Daniels continues to do what she loves: teach, travel, theater and write theater reviews. A retired Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 educator, she has appeared in or directed more than 50 shows in the northern Illinois area. 

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