With characters that seem to echo every facet of Shakespeare’s era — boisterous, sensual, quicksilver passionate, vengeful, generous, jealous, the Lyric Stage Company’s presentation of Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will” is hilariously enjoyable. It’s impossible not to join in, tentatively, at first, even wonderingly — asking yourself, “who are these people” — then you grasp that they are not only “The Kings Men,” a company of outstandingly dedicated actors but their own men, never really off stage, and never more onstage than when they are playing, often along with Shakespeare himself, the bard’s own realistic fantasies.
A handful plus of “The Kings Men” and their women are most often gathered around a wooden trestle table. With the Globe Theatre in the background, they lean in with their elbows on the table top — except when lifting them to quaff from a full tankard — which is often.
Their situation, though liberally moistened with ale, is fraught. They are, though still experts in their craft, growing older, their voices are flagging and worse their memories crumbling at the edges. Worse yet, there seem to be no actors with the ‘chops’ or even the ethics to take their place. Several would-be actors circle around “The King’s Men” with such lack of skill, such carelessness with the Bard’s words, that these oldsters get up and berate them with no visible effect.
The younger generation, having entered another era, doesn’t “get it”. They think: ‘why not entertain people with physical antics and just some rough semblance of Shakespeare’s words with contemporary slang thrown around to fill the gaps in their study? What’s the harm? What’s the fuss?’
What, indeed is the fuss? The fact is that even the King’s Men, wilting with age, but passionate about exact adherence to their now departed friend and fellow actor’s words, need some stimulation themselves to remember exactly what he said.
And Will, deader than dead, is no longer around to gently remind them! Or better yet, just write another play!
Occasionally, but never on schedule, Will seems to again appear among his living friends, when one of them, by chance, happens to string together half a phrase, or even one of Will’s neologisms which are enough to catch the ear of one of their fellows who stand, often overturning a full mug, to completes Will’s phrase word for word until the flourishing, Shakespearean end. Everyone present applauds. And then the applause dies away to uneasy silence. What next?
Printing is in its infancy, publishing rights and copyrights are only ever honored between friends and then only when the business of profit doesn’t get firmly between friends.
So, what but love, need, and finally, will, would ever get these impecunious actors to ever expend their flagging energies, skint purses, to pursuing the hare-brained idea of, first, connecting all their individual parts together in complete dramas and then, to compile the plays into that modern novelty, popular only amongst the few literate elite? A book!
Thanks to playwright Lauren Gunderson’s ingenious invention, implausible, not to say distasteful, characters appear with entirely plausible motives for helping not only Shakespeare’s actor friends but, richly, themselves into the ‘gold’ and fame of this rare bargain.
Thanks to the split-second timing and fertile pauses of Courtney O’Connor’s direction we in the audience enjoy these implausibilities as though they don’t happen only on stage but even, though rarely, in a benevolent history rising, nobly, comically, to the occasion.
A must mention is the genius of Shakespeare’s actor-friends, who blend their thespian skills together so seamlessly the Lyric’s stage set, costumes, music, even the audience around us are all absorbed into one of the bard’s dreams, those alternate realities in which we fans would choose to dwell forever, and sometimes do — even after the curtain falls.
Last, but not least, a shout-out for the women of this cast who not only encourage and help the men to stay on point in a nearly impossible off-stage project, but cheer for the women who appear on-stage in Shakespeare’s plays — although these women are all played, of course, by their men!
Thank goodness for contemporary productions of Shakespeare like “The Book of Will” where women are tolerated — even featured! What next?
(Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will” continues through March 27 at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, Massachusetts. For tickets and more information, visit lyricstage.com.)