In a way, it’s William Shakespeare’s “Big Chill” moment. The star of Lauren Gunderson’s eponymous comedy, “The Book of Will,” never once appears onstage, but it’s all about the Bard as his friends fight to preserve the playwright’s legacy and save his words authentically on what theater enthusiasts know and love as The First Folio.
“What I loved about this is that it’s a story I never heard before—that most people never heard before,” said the show’s director Ryan Rilette, noting that “The Book of Will” manages to be at once innovative and comfortingly familiar, all the while ticking the “holiday-season programming” boxes of being family-friendly, accessible to students, a great ensemble play and “a piece that evokes emotion and demands conversation.”
That isn’t always an easy task, admitted Rilette, Round House’s artistic director since 2012, but in “The Book of Will,” he found family fun and more. The play offers riffs on the power of friendship, the transcendence of love, the strength of community and the importance of collaboration—plus an overarching message about why art matters that particularly lends itself to both the holiday season’s festive beauty and a political climate that threatens arts funding.
“There’s a need for legacy when we’re dealing with impermanence,” observed the director, “and a need to remember. The impermanence of theater and the metaphor of theater as life run through the play: We could have easily lost half of the greatest plays of all time, and not really have the proliferation of the plays of Shakespeare that we have around the world.”
That proliferation, he added, has influenced everything from the way we use the English language to the way we experience theater itself. And in Gunderson’s exploration of the role of artistic communities in the preservation of the arts, Rilette finds a metaphor that stretches from the 17th century to today. “The best thing about her play is that she makes that case for the importance of the arts, and why theater is so important,” Rilette explained.
“For all those reasons, I chose the play and I continue to be fascinated by it.”
It’s fascinating stuff.
The year is 1623; members of the Kings Men, Shakespeare’s theater company, are not only mourning the death of their friend and artistic leader, but also enduring the slings and arrows of lesser theater troupes who mangle the words and plotlines of their beloved Bard of Avon.
It’s not intentional—back then, scripts were a rarity and revisions were made on the fly—or maybe it is, as competition was rife among Elizabethan actors vying for a bigger share of the audience even if they had to plagiarize the plots of playwrights like Shakespeare to get it. The Kings Men (mainly Shakespeare BFFs John Heminges and Henry Condell), with the help of their wives and assorted colleagues and frenemies, band together to get the plays down on paper—ultimately printing them in a folio, a bound volume of printed parchment. Naturally, hilarity ensues, tinged with sorrow, sentiment and even a soupçon of romance.
“The play is about a group of artists who have worked together for so many years,” explained Rilette, who pointed out that life imitates art in this case. “I was able to pull together a cast that not only was perfect for the show, but a cast that really jelled well together. These artists, whether they’ve worked together a few times or numerous times, they all know each other’s work, they all know each other—and it brings history into the play that you can feel when these guys are talking to each other. You get the sense that they really love and care about each other because this cast actually does.”
Except for Cody LeRoy Wilson, who plays boy Hamlet and Marcus in his Round House debut, Rilette noted, every cast member has done at least one show here, or taught, or directed or assistant-directed. “It ranges from Mitch (Hébert,) who has done over 40 plays for us over many, many years, to folks like Todd (Scofield) and Kim (Gilbert) who have done numerous plays, or Maboud (Ebrahimzadeh) and Marni (Penning) who are doing their second or third play (at Round House), to people like Brandon (McCoy) and Chris Richardson who teach for us year-round and occasionally are on stage. It’s an interesting mix in that way.
“We believe very strongly at Round House that we need to prioritize the use of local artists—we always try to find a local cast,” he added. “With this show, we had an abundance of really great people to choose from.”
Like Bethesda native Katie Kleiger, who plays (slightly altered) historical figure Alice Heminges as an early incarnation of today’s artist/waitress/feminist prototype. “Yeah! I love that!” said Kleiger, when asked about following up her feminist portrayal of Mary Bennet in the 2016 holiday production of “Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley,” also by Gunderson. “If I can keep that going, I will—that would be badass!”
Kleiger, a Sidwell Friends alumna who has playing “early feminist streak” characters since graduating from the University of Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater BFA Acting Program, sees Gunderson as a modern-day playwright who has been able to take a story that has been dominated by men, and imagine and represent the roles of women in that story.
“It was about these men, but she wrote the women in very purposefully,” Kleiger said. “It’s historically true that John (Heminges)’s wife died in the middle of the process. (Gunderson) made that into what I and a lot of people think is the most powerful scene in the play. It shows how important (Rebecca Heminges) is, and women are.”
But how important is Shakespeare, in the context of “The Book of Will?” How much of a Bard-o-phile do you need to be to appreciate the production? That depends.
Rillette said it’s different every night. “Sometimes it’s an audience who is really astute and gets all of it,” he said. “Sometimes the audience doesn’t necessarily get all the references, but loves the story of these guys trying to put this thing together. It’s always slightly different—you never know.”
That keeps the cast on its toes, including Kleiger, who said she thought she was a seasoned Shakespearean until she talked to the rest of the cast. “People kept asking, ‘How many Shakespeare plays have you done?’ And Marni said 23; Todd said, ‘23, too!’ I didn’t even want to count mine!
“I do love Shakespeare,” she admitted. “Since I graduated, all the work I’ve done has been new plays, which is really cool in its own way. But I think it would be amazing to tackle some Shakespeare again.”
And she’s hoping audiences at all levels of Shakespeare appreciation will tackle “The Book of Will.” “The first scene is nothing but Shakespeare references, and you could potentially get scared,” she admitted. “But there’s general Shakespeare knowledge; people have heard of ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona;’ people have heard of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ You don’t have to actually know what ‘Pericles’ is about to laugh at the fact that Henry thinks it’s great and we think it’s horrible. I think it’s very accessible.
“There are Easter eggs,” she added. “Just like there were in ‘Miss Bennett,’ for Jane Austen fans.”
Old fans and new ones seem to agree on “The Book of Will, according to Rilette. “So far, we’ve had standing ovations at every show,” he said. “Audiences are really loving it.”
“The Book of Will” runs through Dec. 24 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $30, with discounts available including Free Play for high school students. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org/buy- tickets/free-play/ or call 240-644-1100.