I discovered Shakespeare when I was around ten. A teacher introduced us to the scene where Romeo and Juliet meet — that shared perfect sonnet — and, solely because of my name, asked me to read the role of Juliet while she read Romeo. I couldn’t have fully understood the meaning of the words I was saying, but I did understand “holy” “kiss” “touch” “saint” and “prayer,” and something about the rhythm, the way these two young people shaped and expressed their new unformed love in words, had me transfixed. I felt I had encountered something significant, transcendent, much bigger than myself. And then Freddie, the tough working-class kid I had a bit of a crush on, approached me afterward and broke the trance. “What would you do if you had a bust of Shakespeare?” he asked, his tone truculent. I said I didn’t know, so he answered his own question: “I’d smash it.”
From then on, I was obsessed with the idea of owning a Collected Works. I grew up in England and saw these at all of my friends’ houses, but given the value of Shakespeare’s work, I assumed they were insanely expensive, and we didn’t have much money. I never mentioned my longing to my mother, just sneaked into other people’s studies and bedrooms to slide their Shakespeare off the shelf, sit on the floor and read.
When I was thirteen, I received a collection as a school prize.
Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, now premiering at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, is about that precious book and the way the first folio came together seven years after Shakespeare’s death because of the passion and dedication of two actors in his company, The King’s Men: John Heminges and Henry Condell. Up until then, the plays had been recorded in bits and pieces, printed on flimsy, unreliable quartos, scattered. Heminges and Condell went to extraordinary lengths to gather everything together, figure out authenticity, raise funds and find a way of working with the only publisher who had the resources for the task, William Jaggard, whom Shakespeare had disliked for printing works that he hadn’t written under his name and scrambling works he had.
This might make the play sound like a tutorial, full of worthwhile information but essentially static. Gunderson, however, has peopled the stage with lively, historically based characters, joking, drinking, expressing familial love or professional rivalry, acting Shakespearean scenes and squabbling — primarily about whether the task they’re undertaking is necessary or even doable. She paints a vivid portrait of the times in language sometimes formal, sometimes poetic and often as contemporary as “shits and giggles.” She also gives a real feel for theater life and what it means to be an actor; you sense this is a work of both scholarship and love.
There’s a lot of funny stuff, too. Wesley Mann’s cunning William Jaggard is a mix of pure mendacity and perhaps a touch of wistful yearning. Triney Sandoval is hilariously over the top as Richard Burbage, the most famous actor of his time, and he also gives full expression to Ben Jonson’s inner cauldron of anger, generosity and narcissism. Portrayed by Rodney Lizcano, Ralph Crane is the muted, persnickety prototype of every nitpicking proofreader that journalists have both cursed and blessed over the years. And Heminges and Condell are well played by Liam Craig and Kurt Rhoads, respectively.
The script isn’t perfect: There’s a bit too much repetition in the discussion of the plays’ worth and why they should be preserved, a death that comes inexplicably fast, a time or two when actors slide into a rhythmic cadence that often comes with assumed English accents and which people mistakenly think of as Shakespearean.
But overall the evening is pure delight. When the great printing press finally starts to roll toward the end, it’s a moment of pure triumph that brings everything together: acting, script and the brilliant tech. It serves as homage to those who sacrificed to make the first folio happen and to Shakespeare’s magnificent words. On the heels of this roaring moment comes a quiet ending and a single, gentle revelation.
The Book of Will
Presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company through February 26, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.