Publisher: Elizabeth Hurd / Managing Director: Adrienne Proctor / Editor: Jillian Pritchard Ball

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park Premieres an Outstanding Production of “The Book of Will”

Kate Kemmet as Alice Heminges and Chris Rodgers as Henry Condell in “The Book of Will” Photo courtesy of April Porterfield

Shakespeare in the Park on Paseo is presenting “The Book of Will” through August 31, 2019.  Lauren Gunderson’s amazing play tells the tale of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends, The King’s Men, collecting and publishing his works three years after his death.  Other group members are lost, and along with them their memories of parts played.  They decide to collect and publish Shakespeare’s works, to commemorate the genius of his writing for future generations.  The King’s Men are beset with difficulties but, ultimately, they succeed, as is witnessed by the volumes of Shakespeare in the libraries of theatre folk everywhere, the number of companies specializing in Shakespeare, and the number of times his work is presented in every city, every country, and every culture.

William Shakespeare was a genius, and we are very privileged to have his works to entertain and educate us. Today Shakespeare seems hard as the English language has evolved.  In his day, Shakespeare was easy to play and easy to watch.  Understanding the human condition as Shakespeare did was a cornerstone of his success.  Today Lauren Gunderson has many of the same qualities required of such a brilliant playwright; her work is also easy to understand, easy to play and easy to watch.  Easy, because it’s good as Shakespeare is good. This enables Gunderson to use all the twists, turns and complications necessary to make the story she is telling connect.  All that is required for a successful production is intelligent and innovative directing, and a talented company of actors to bring the work to life.  Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park has all of that, and “The Book of Will” is incredibly brilliant.

Kate Kemmet, Tyler Woods, Aiesha Watley, Darius Freeman and Chris Rodgers in “The Book of Will” Photo courtesy of April Porterfield

Guest director, Rex Daugherty returns home to Oklahoma City to direct “The Book of Will” at the Paseo location.  For the past four years Daugherty has been Artistic Director of Solas Nua in Washington DC.  His work has been lauded internationally and featured in The New York Times, The Irish Times and of course, The Washington Post as well as aired on RTE – Irish TV.  His background as an actor is impressive, receiving three Helen Hayes nominations and his directing background is equally distinguished.  “The Book of Will” is another success for him.  There is a company of actors, nay, a camaraderie of actors involved with Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park.  They are very much an ensemble troupe, some are company members, some are guests, some are students, some professors and all are talented.  Daugherty uses them well, wisely and wonderfully.

Daugherty’s adept directing takes us on this journey with John Heminges played superbly by Shawn Churchman and Henry Condell played evocatively by Chris Rodgers.  Both of these actors have the elusive quality of completely genuine delivery luring the audience into this fascinating story. They play the two members of The King’s Men leading the group in saving the works of Shakespeare.  The action takes place in their favorite hangout, the pub attached to the Globe where actors gather after the show.  As “The Book of Will” begins they have lost Burbage, an actor whose intense knowledge of Shakespeare extends the loss of Shakespeare himself.  With encouragement from Condell and a somewhat cautious Heminges, alongside  all those who care about these words they pursue the plan. Ultimately they recruit the poet laureate to their cause—Ben Jonson.  Jonson is a superb writer himself with something of a love/hate relationship with Shakespeare, the man he has admired throughout his career.  Tyler Woods plays Jonson as well as Burbage at the beginning of the show.  Woods has that booming voice and assertiveness that sets him apart as a fine Shakespearean actor talented enough to steal the scene, but too fine an actor to do so. 

Alice Heminges, John’s daughter, is more than a barmaid. She is an active participant in the company and she is beautifully played by Kate Kemmet.  Her mother, John Heminges muse as it were, is Rebecca Heminges genuinely brought to life by Renee Krapff  a woman who also loves Shakespeare and especially his comedies.  Elizabeth Condell, the wife of Henry, is often with them and is clearly the muse of Condell as well.  She is expertly played by Aiesha Watley.  The women in this show love how well Shakespeare understands women. 

Aiesha Watley, Chris Rodgers and Kate Kemmet in “The Book of Will” Photo courtesy of April Porterfield

The villain of the piece is William Jaggard, a printer and a good businessman.  Not an ethical one, although a rather amusing one and he is played quite wonderfully by David-Fletcher-Hall.  With this performance, we see the villain and the clown wrapped up in a delightful package.  Portraying the Jaggard son, Isaac, is Darius Freeman.  The young printer is an idealist determined to overcome his father’s reputation and assist The King’s Men in saving the precious words of Shakespeare.  The two performances are quite complementary. 

Rounding out the excellent ensemble are Daniel Isaac Johnson, Joseph Campbell and Chip Keebaugh.  Whether they be bar patrons, barmen, Lords or various other characters each gentleman is a fine performer for Gunderson and Shakespeare as well.

“The Book of Will” is staged beautifully on a great set designed by Robert Rickner.  Tyler Woods is Production Manager as well as performing, Emily Herrera does wonderful things with costumes and Whitney Hendricks manages the stage.  Dr. Kae Koger is invaluable as dramaturg, as are all the crew members that make up the camaraderie of performers and technicians.  Daugherty is blessed with great creative skill and a skilled creative crew that makes Gunderson’s work soar.

“The Book of Will” plays through August 31, 2019 at the Paseo location of Shakespeare in the Park.  The address is 2920 Paseo in the quaint Paseo district of Oklahoma City.  To contact the theatre visit www.okshakes.org or call the box office at 405-235-3700.  Curtain is 8:00 pm Thursday through Saturday evenings and 2:00 pm for the Sunday Matinee performance.

This production is an essential experience for all theatre folk and lovers of Shakespeare.  Rather than another exhortation from an envious actress turned critic to view Oklahoma City’s excellent theatrical productions, consider this recommendation to be directly from The Bard himself.

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