Author: Lauren Gunderson
At: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets: 847-673-6300 or Northlight.org; $30-$76. Runs through: Dec. 17
Most theaters use this time of year to trot out family-friendly versions of A Christmas Carol or the Nutcracker; however, Northlight Theatre is hoping mature audiences will be just as endeared to Lauren Gunderson's The Book of Will. This midwest premier may do the trick for anyone with a deep love for Shakespeare, but savvier audiences may come away from this treacly confection hungry for something with more substance.
Actors John Hemings ( Jim Ortlieb ) and Henry Condell ( Gregory Linington ) are two in a handful of remaining actors left in the King's Men, a troupe Shakespeare himself belonged to in the early 1600s. After one of their members passes away, they have a dreadful thought, "What happens to Shakespeare's works after we're all gone?" Henry resolves to publish every Shakespeare play, and after some convincing from his wife and daughter ( Rengin Altay and Dana Black ), John is too. The odds are stacked impossibly against them, but if they can win over rivals like Ben Jonson ( William Dick ), or con-men like William Jaggard ( Austin Tichenor ) they might have a publishable book on their hands.
A show like this ought to have been a witty, fast-moving tribute to Shakespeare, but so many moments felt bogged down and tension free. Character development takes a back seat to moving the story forward, so for instance, when John opposes publishing the collection, it doesn't make much sense, seeing what a huge fan of the bard he is. But, if he has to be convinced to join them, it adds a little manufactured tension. Even adversaries to the troupe become less of a hindrance by deciding not to stymie their work at the drop of a hat. Every victory feels a little unearned.
For a show written and directed by women, it felt odd to have three strong female leads with so little pertinence over any stage action. They offer help and solace, but the only female character with any bearing over the printing operation is the Dark Lady ( McKinley Carter ), who is introduced as a foreboding figure, but puts up no fight to the endeavor. It's also a disappointment to see a production company like Northlight not utilizing more actors of color on their stage.
What does work in The Book of Will is director Jessica Thebus' assembled cast. Dana Black brings energy and nuance to Alice Heminges, Austin Tichenor brings vim and vigor to both blustery roles of Richard Burbage and William Jaggard, and Thomas J. Cox imbues the role of Ralph Crane with incredible mousy nervousness. If you can silence your brain for the duration, The Book of Will is perfectly harmless.