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Say what you will about Shakespeare in Love, the 1998 Academy Award winner deserves to outlive its associations with Harvey Weinstein—who was credited with engineering the movie’s Best Picture upset over Saving Private Ryan, that year’s awards magnet, and its biggest hit. Shakespeare in Love’s original screenplay, co-written by Tom Stoppard, was adapted in 2014 as a stage play (by Billy Elliot screenwriter Lee Hall) that’s been performed by regional theaters all over the United States. And if one were to make a sequel called Shakespeare in the Ground, it would probably sound a lot like The Book of Will. Lauren Gunderson’s nimble, earnest, screen-ready comedy focuses on the efforts of the surviving members of his company The King’s Men to preserve his legacy and get the plays he wrote for their troupe into print.
Copyright law hadn’t yet been established in King James’ day. Bootleg transcriptions of these plays did brisk business among the part of the populace that could read. When actors John Heminges and Henry Condrell saw bastardized and incomplete “quarto” (pamphlet) versions of their departed friend’s work being peddled as the original master tapes, so to speak, they took it upon themselves (with help from their families) to assemble a comprehensive and dramaturgically sound compilation of Shakespeare’s plays, in a time when plays were not believed to warrant such venerable handling. Relying on the expertise of those who’d performed the plays and the scriveners who copied and recopied them, their goal was to produce a volume of which the author would have approved—and to beat inferior editions, diluted by the work of lesser playwrights, to market. Unprecedented in its ambition and its expense, their First Folio was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death.
So Gunderson’s play is to dramaturgy and 17th century publishing what Spotlight or The Post are to journalism. It exhibits all the qualities that have made her the most-produced living American playwright of 2016—it’s a warm, inviting, not-especially-challenging comedy that makes the audience feel smart for liking it—and the qualities that have animated her several other plays about geniuses of centuries past, like the certainty that nearly every great man has been propped up by a great (or several great) woman. Mr. Heminges, for example, is seen to have accomplished his part in the great deed only though the support of his wife and daughter.
There’s a fun Who’s-on-First style bit about the fate of a play called, ahem, Love’s Labours Won, and a less successful recurring gag about Pericles. But the hit-rate is high.
There’s really no reason this shouldn’t be the movie it already feels like, and it’s tough to imagine Hollywood could improve upon Round House Theatre’s cast: Todd Scofield and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Misters Heminges and Condell, respectively, and a well-padded Mitchell Hébert in a dual role as star actor Richard Burbage—cursed to watch younger actors offer a more self-pitying interpretation of Hamlet than the one he played when the play was new—and star playwright Ben Jonson, who contributed the poem that opens the First Folio. (The double casting gives Hébert the unusual opportunity to eulogize himself.) Marni Penning, Kimberly Gilbert, and Katie Kleiger are all great fun as the spouses and daughter, respectively, who help piece together copies of the plays from various actors’ sides, and Michael Russotto plays the blind and unscrupulous publisher William Jaggard with the swagger of a sleazy ’70s concert promoter. Gilbert gets a wicked interlude as Emilia Bassano Lanier, likely the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, to whom Condell goes begging when his project runs into funding problems, and Brandon McCoy has a sensitive turn as Jaggard’s son, whose genuine appreciation for the work mitigates his dad’s mercenary zeal. Christopher Michael Richardson does yeoman’s work as the lowly scrivener whose contributions to the project prove essential.
It’s probably not fair to complain that elements of a play about the genesis of one of the very foundations of Western drama feel a little bit, you know, familiar, so I won’t. Here’s to the proto-dramatrugs who believed that there was only one Will, so there had to be a way.
At Round House Theatre to Dec. 30. 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $45–$65. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.