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'Book of Will' irresistible tribute to the Bard

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Book of Will” has an undeniable brilliance and irresistible energy. It is a poignant and very funny homage to William Shakespeare, an acknowledgment of human mortality and a tribute to the staying power of the written word.

Written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Christopher Liam Moore, “The Book of Will” opened Saturday in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre to a full and enthusiastic house. This marks the first time an original play written by a woman has been performed in OSF’s outdoor theater.

Shakespeare, late of the King’s Men, the Globe Theatre and Stratford-upon-Avon, left little of his own writing — just scraps of paper and shards of memory, perhaps more forgotten than remembered. Three years after his death, Shakespeare’s fellows in the King’s Men company determine that they will publish his collected plays as a folio to establish the definitive text of the plays and honor their friend.

“The Book of Will” is about loss and remembrance — of life, of letters, of legacy. It celebrates Shakespearean theater and tells how and why we know much of anything about William Shakespeare. In “The Book of Will,” the OSF company actors enact the origin story of their own profession, rejoicing as they proclaim Shakespeare’s words, the gifts of their master.

Shakespeare’s friends are Henry Condell, Richard Burbage and John Heminges, respectively played by David Kelly, Kevin Kenerly and Jeffrey King. The actors leap onto tables to relive famous performances, trumpeting lines in the excitement of recitation. The words come so fast — Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, the histories, the comedies and tragedies — that the lines are hard to follow and sometimes Condell and Heminges are in error. They parody the knaves who muddy Shakespeare’s language and deliberately misspeak the lines to gales of laughter.

It’s only Burbage who never confuses a line or misses an attribution, the one who knows the plays better than any. As Burbage, Kenerly’s Romeo has a focused intensity and is breathless with desire. Burbage’s early death devastates the others and spurs the collection of Shakespeare’s plays.

David Kelly’s comedic genius shines and as Condell, he is emotional, explosive with glee and anger. Kelly serves as a fine counter to Jeffrey King’s morose despair, when loss overtakes Heminges’ soul and the immensity of the project overwhelms his mind.

The women of “The Book of Will” are strong and independent, literate and business smart. No subordinates, Catherine Castellanos, Kate Mulligan and Kate Hurster have the roles of Elizabeth Condell, Rebecca Heminges and Alice. These women are equal measure to their men, equal party to the task of assembling and editing Shakespeare’s works. They are equally vocal, equally passionate about Shakespeare’s writings and join in to pronounce the lines of Beatrice, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth and Rosalind.

Not to be missed are Jordan Barbour in the role of Isaac Jaggard and Daniel T. Parker as Ben Jonson; both are superbly cast. Barbour is passionate, honest and steadfast as Isaac, the son of his much despised and rapacious father, the printer William Jaggard, played by a resurrected Kevin Kenerly.

OSF’s 2918 podcasts with directors and playwrights asked the question, “Why theatre?” With every word of “The Book of Will,” each gesture, these OSF performers show us how Shakespeare’s words are immortal and universal, how they embody the range of human existence. But theater is ephemeral, as transient as a life. A play is not fixed and unyielding but lives and breathes with each performance. Words are spoken, scenes enacted and the play is done, whole and complete. What of the words?

Publishing Shakespeare’s words in 1623 fixed the text from that time forward, and in this, “The Book of Will” honors the written word that earlier was largely an oral tradition. Because of the First Folio, Shakespeare’s plays can be read today, savored at length and pondered. The plays can be interpreted and adapted, but always that First Folio serves as a touchstone of the author’s intent.

Earlier this year, Gunderson invited the public to share videos of their favorite Shakespeare passages with OSF saying, “Shakespeare’s words connect people across countries, cultures, languages and even time itself.” Many of these videos and clips of OSF actors were projected against the exterior timbers of the backdrop that framed the images. Earlier that same backdrop bordered arrays of letters as the First Folio was typeset at William Jaggard’s printing house.

Gunderson was there on opening night to thank the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the audience saying, “History walks herewe are all Will.” William Shakespeare has never seemed more alive than in that moment.

“The Book of Will” continues through Oct. 13 with a sign interpreted performance on July 7. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.OSFAshland.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

OSF photo by Jenny Graham Ensuring that Shakespeare’s words survive is a passion project for John Heminges (Jeffrey King), Rebecca Heminges (Kate Mulligan), Elizabeth Condell (Catherine Castellanos), Alice (Kate Hurster), Henry Condell (David Kelly) and Ralph Crane (Cristofer Jean).