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The Book of Will Finds and Saves Shakespeare, in Fine Fashion

Henry Condell (Dwight Clark) and John Heminges (Joel Sandel) in The Book of Will at Main Street Theater.
Henry Condell (Dwight Clark) and John Heminges (Joel Sandel) in The Book of Will at Main Street Theater.
Photo by Pin Lim / Forest Photography

Legendary film mogul Samuel Goldwyn (the G in MGM) once famously said that he didn't want to see any more movies where people write with feathers. Sorry to be contrary Mr. Goldwyn, but these are the films and plays I most want to see. I'm done with kitchen-sink drama – I have a sink at home, thank you – and social conscious plays whose themes are torn from the headlines often leave me a bit cold. Political correctness can only go so far. In this world of 24/7 news, social justice is often passé before the next broadcast. Nothing dates so fast as contemporary outrage.

How comforting it is then to go back in time. To revisit history. To write with feathers.

Main Street Theater continues its romp through Tudor and Jacobean eras with Lauren Gunderson's repository of all-things Shakespeare, The Book of Will. You will find quasi-Shakespearean prose, exquisite costuming, detailed acting, and two hours of Shakespearean homage. For any admirer of the Bard of Avon, this is catnip.

Not only has Main Street blessed us with superlative productions of the Bard's work (Twelfth Night, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III, Henry V), but the company has given us perceptive glimpses into the tumultuous times preceding his rise (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), so it's natural that it should honor the great one himself with Gunderson's tony homage.

Shakespeare is dead, and his three stalwart actors Henry Condell (Dwight Clark), John Heminges (Joel Sandel), and Richard Burbage (Rutherford Cravens) must make good on his legacy, or else his exquisite work will be lost to second-rate performers who improvise and bump their way through the plays, using any words they see fit. The three set out to publish their friend and partner's entire block of work, or as many of his histories, comedies, and tragedies whose prompt books haven't been consumed by fire, eaten by worms, or discovered in shreds because an actor has saved only his part.

Yes, this odyssey smacks of Masterpiece Theatre, and there are roadblocks galore until the triumphant publication of the First Folio (1623), but the production, under Rebecca Greene Udden's urbane direction, keeps our interest during our gleeful journey through Shakespeare 101. You will learn a bit about book binding, how costly such a tome was for ordinary Londoners (if they could read at all), where shards of the master's plays were found, the shady business dealings that almost wrecked the project, and how the tireless enthusiasm of Condell and Heminges' wives and daughter led to success. You will meet the Dark Lady of the sonnets, Emilia Bassano Lanier (Elizabeth Marshall Black) whose patronage was prime; and watch great rival Ben Johnson (John Feltch) sputter in indignation, then give way to absolute admiration. Ale is consumed in copious quantities at the Garter Inn, and a great deal of Jacobean arcana is laid forth in bite-sized pieces. For anyone with even a smattering of interest in William Shakespeare, The Book of Will should be fodder for further study.

But, really, what historical play doesn't rely on its actors to wring the best out of these ancient days? Main Street has assembled a mesmerizing Who's Who of a cast. They strut and fret and chew the scenery most deliciously. Clark is all passion and fire as actor Condell; Sandel is rueful indecision as Heminges, former actor and the Globe's business manager; Cravens is blustery Burbage, the most famous actor of his day, and then unctuous and glad-handing as blind publisher Jaggard. Then there is Feltch as Ben Johnson, poet laureate and rival of Shakespeare. He plays debauchery with a sly wit and wink in his gimlet eye. The women are steadfast and loyal, more prominent than they would have been in Renaissance England, perhaps, but Brittny Bush, as Heminges' stalwart daughter Alice, Ivy Castle Simpson as Heminges' prodding wife Rebecca, and Black as Condell's adoring wife Elizabeth, all add a piquant touch to this literary celebration.

Black is especially good in the cameo role of the Dark Lady, glittering in costumer Donna Southern Schmidt's ruby red gown. As Shakespeare's former mistress, she knows her place in history because of the love sonnets, even though her name might soon be forgotten. It's a fleeting characterization, but mighty potent. Black then turns around and plays Shakespeare's widow Anne, gray as Miss Havisham and sadly overlooked by her lauded husband who left her long ago to find fame and fortune in the big city.

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Blake Alexander Weir, a sterling Henry VIII in the Wolf Hall plays, supplies subtle force to Jaggard's son Isaac, the heir to his father's business and subsequent publisher of the First Folio. The other roles, doubled and tripled, belong to Shane Manning, Zack Varela, and Brandon Balque, whose ink-stained fingers as Crane say more about Renaissance book printing than a page of dialogue.

As per Main Street, the setting is effectively minimal: wood bench and table, some chairs, and a facsimile of the Globe's stage, nicely sketched by Torsten Louis. But it's Schmidt's patterned and rich fabrics that delineate so precisely. Sleeves are lashed to bodices; collars are ruffed, pantaloons billow, and the hats are soft or rigid like flower pots and crowned by pearls.

William Shakespeare is the most unknown famous writer in history. The documentary evidence is, at best, scant and heavily disputed among scholars ever since his death in 1616. What's extant are two signatures, his will, and testimony from a tenant's dispute, that's about it. Everything else about him has been woven out of minor facts and hearsay. Gunderson's The Book of Will gives us much to chew on, while the actors munch magnificently, and a tiny bit of gilded thread is stitched into Shakespeare's glorious tapestry.

The Book of Will continues through October 21 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$48.

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