Davidson’s The Book of Will: Fights, Fun and Folios

The King’s Men (and friends) plan their publication of Shakespeare’s first folio. Photo by Olivia Forrester ‘22.

Sebastian Sola-Sole ‘21

Theater critic

Sunday afternoon, I took my seat in the Duke Family Performance Hall for this semester’s mainstage production, The Book of Will by Laura Gunderson, directed by Dr. Ann Marie Costa.  I settled in to the sound of something like Elizabethan muzak (my battle with the music is a criticism to come) and a pretty packed house. I had strict orders from my Literary Analysis professor to consider the show and come prepared with questions for Monday morning’s class discussion with Dr. Costa. I was stuporous—still wiped out from Davidson Halloween the night before. The lights dimmed to dark, the actors shuffled out onto stage and the spotlight landed on a period-dressed Cameron Anderson ‘20 performing a hysterical, “bad” quarto version of Hamlet’s iconic “To be or not to be” soliloquy. After Anderson’s thirty seconds in the spotlight, Davidson’s own Globe Theatre Tap House was fully illuminated on stage and I, thank god, was hooked and awake.  The show has since finished its four-day run and deserves some published applause and criticism, which we here at The Davidsonian are more than happy to provide.

The play, published in 2016, follows a Hamilton-ian conceptual framework: blending modern elements (music, lighting) with period speech and historical records, The Book of Will follows Henry Condell (Jacob Haythorn ‘19) and John Heminges (Sam Giberga ‘19)—members of Shakespeare’s famed acting troupe, The King’s Men—in their efforts to assemble the first complete folio of the playwright’s works after his death. It thematizes the question of legacy and manipulates words and feelings from the past to grant audiences an accessible view of Shakespeare’s London.

At the show’s outset, we meet Henry, John, and his daughter, Alice (Zoe Harrison ‘21), joined by their fellow actor, Richard Brubage (Adam Gelman ‘21), famed and fabled for his work as the troupe’s leading man. Brubage and company barbarically condemn the impure representation of Shakespeare’s work we had all just seen. Then, Exit Burbage: the plot arch begins with leading man’s death: with him comes the passing of the what all on stage consider the purest memory of Shakespeare’s words. The two remaining members of the King’s Men, with their families behind them, set out to collect and canonize the Bard’s words: curating, assembling and printing a folio edition of his plays. They face further death, doubt, and devious publishers, but ultimately achieve their goal in the show’s final moments: a somewhat cheesy but nevertheless triumphant dedication of the works to Shakespeare’s living family, his widow Anne Hathaway (Deya Bowers ‘19) and his daughter Susannah (Caroline Gschwind ‘22).

Among the excellect performers, I found none more successful than the character actors. Raul Galvan ’21 as Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s longtime literary rival and the period’s cantankerous, sottish poet laureate, dignified and deepened Gunderson’s construction of the character, stumbling hilariously about the set to impress and compel the audience through moments of gruff comedy and soft, inspiring care. John Leiner ’21 and Lee Kromer ’21 as (respectively) Ed Knight, the King’s Men’s self-serious stage manager, and Ralph Krane, Ed’s nervous but competent assistant, relate perfectly to one another and develop a dynamic that’s hilarious to watch. Leiner’s curmudgeonly ire alongside Kromer’s cowering earnestness win the audience’s sympathy and attention as soon as the two engage.

The second major success came from the scenic crew. The set was thin—not in the sense that a leaf of parchment or McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club is thin, but more like sparse—unassuming, smartly built and, again, effective. Three massive oaken rafters hung from the stage ceiling to frame the top of the set and a variably illuminated cyclorama cut off the back, informing dimension in various scenes. In the center sat an interchangeable, barely decorated bar/printing station, around which rotated a collection of chairs and tables. Most impressively, with the completion of each of three major steps in the folio’s development, sets of larger-than-life pieces of paper—evocative of Paul Cocksedge’s “A Gust of Wind”—descended in front of the cyc to field projections and lighting. All told, technical director and Davidson theater first-timer Chip Davis, and those on the scenic crew, nailed the task at hand: to populate the stage with simple, functional and attractive set elements and lend Gunderson’s work the space it demands to flourish.

I found the score, on the other hand, underconsidered. I entered to plucky Renaissance background music and was quickly met, in the first transition scene, by its technofied cousin: EDM backing beats and club rhythms under synthesized strings. Productively, the music motivated transitions and modernized the staging as a the script demands—but in the middle of the show, for one awkward moment, it switched back to the lobby music to cancel the stylistic impact of Costa’s choice.

Beyond that, my only real disappointment with Davidson’s production came from its handling of Gunderson’s female characters. The script dedicates a good deal of effort and energy to recasting the women of the period to reflect their contemporary status and how Shakespeare tended to write them. While the play is clearly male-driven, Gunderson leaves a lot of space for female voices, especially those of Alice and Rebecca (Lidan Zhang ‘21). The most potent example comes at the beginning of the second act’s sixth scene, when Henry and John entrust the final edit of the folio’s dedication to Alice. The men are to hang on her criticisms and compliments with wide eyes and inspired grins. In Davidson’s staging, Alice seemed casual and impartial to the positional advantage Gunderson granted her over the men. To transcend the story’s imposition of male dominance, I felt the characters’ acting choices needed to take advantage of the spaces Gunderson writes. This aspect of Davidson’s production fell a little short for me.

In fairness, a friend of mine who had never read the play attributed the dilemma to the writing itself. He felt Gunderson had used winking suggestions of female power—sly comments about what men say when women aren’t around, teasing reminders that women keep things in order—to make up for the fact that the show is overly focused on male greatness. Shakespeare, under this reading, is something like the ghost of King Hamlet: a father dead before the show begins, haunting his male heirs as they fight corrupt usurpers who follow him. In a show whose real action is so driven by the decisions and debates of men, Gunderson may have simply left the women without enough space.

Sebastian Sola-Sole ‘21, Design Editor of The Davidsonian, is a Hispanic Studies major from Bethesda, MD.

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