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Theater review: 'The Book of Will' is a charming historical love letter

Andrew J. Friedenthal Special to the American-Statesman
Toby Minor, Huck Huckaby and Ben Wolfe star in the Austin Playhouse's production of the historical play "The Book of Will," about the legacy of William Shakespeare. [Contributed by Lara Toner Haddock]

Productions of Shakespeare are a dime a dozen on the American stage; productions about Shakespeare are less common. Lauren Gunderson’s historical drama “The Book of Will” is that exception, a celebration of the famed playwright and poet’s work. Austin Playhouse’s season-ending new production of the play, running through June 30, is a breezy, joyous exploration of the text’s most life-affirming aspects.

“The Book of Will” begins in 1619, a few years after Shakespeare’s death, and focuses on the remaining members of his theater troupe, the King’s Men. When one of their number suddenly and tragically passes away, those left behind realize that it is up to them to preserve the bard’s plays for future generations (and to protect them from watered-down versions) by printing a collected folio of his complete works.

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The rest of the play is surprisingly and engagingly plot-heavy, exploring the ins and outs of what the team behind the First Folio went through in trying to secure the rights, funding and physical means to get the collection published. This portrayal of the British publishing industry in the early 17th century is unexpectedly gripping, with a number of plot twists and emotional hooks that keep the story going at a pleasant pace.

What truly makes this production so solid is the cast of Austin Playhouse regulars who are all equally at home with the text’s moments of exposition, comedy and quiet reflection. Director Lara Toner Haddock clearly trusts her actors to know when to ham it up and when to tone it down, maintaining an ongoing feeling of high energy that rarely slackens across the show’s two acts.

The team of three at the heart of the publishing plan — Huck Huckaby as John Heminges, J. Ben Wolfe as Hendry Condell and Marie Fahlgren as Alice Heminges — set the tone for the rest of the cast. Huckaby’s wistfulness, Wolfe’s overwhelming motivation to commemorate his friend’s work and Fahlgren’s steely determination create a trifecta that propels the narrative’s steady clip.

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The breakout performance here, though, is Toby Minor, double-cast as poet laureate Ben Johnson and, far too briefly, spotlight-loving actor Richard Burbage. With an amazing monologue as Burbage, segueing between almost a dozen classic Shakespearean lines, and a more understated (but nevertheless hilarious and emotionally nuanced) performance as Johnson, Minor shows why he needs to be cast in meatier roles throughout Austin and not just utilized for his excellent stunt work and fight choreography.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of “The Book of Will” is that it takes a story that might seem stuffy and turns it into a truly fun, warm and witty play that serves as a fitting tribute to Shakespeare’s work and the forethought of his friends. It is also a love letter to all those who have produced that work as it has been passed down over the centuries.