‘The Book of Will’ is Pure Brilliance at Edge of the Wood Theatre

Chicago is a town with a fantastic theatrical tradition. One of the great things about Chicago is that you can stumble on brilliant theater in some unexpected places. From storefronts to church basements, you never know where you are going to find artistic brilliance.

Edge of the Wood Theatre is a basement theater in the bowels of Edgebrook Community Church in Chicago’s Edgebrook neighborhood. The company started in 2000 as an artistic training ground for children. In 2013, the organization launched its Resident Theatre to bring professional-caliber, family-friendly theatre to the Edgebrook community.

Now playing Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through May 1, The Resident Theatre at Edge of the Wood presents The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson. This witty, well-written, wonderfully acted play is an absolute delight that reminds audiences that even the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre started life in a church basement.

And that’s not to say that Edge of the Wood Theatre is a bad space. As far as basement theatres go, it is a very nice set up featuring a deep-reaching, raised stage with a very effective technical arrangement. There isn’t a bad seat in the house. It is a lovely place to watch good theater, and good theater is exactly what you’ll get with The Book of Will.

The King’s Men is the acting company to which William Shakespeare pledged his allegiance to for most of his career. Shakespeare was the company’s leading playwright up until his death in April 1616.

After Shakespeare’s death, the respected actors in The King’s Men continued to perform his celebrated works. But they were forced to compete with hack productions featuring substandard, plagiarized scripts.

Three years after the Bard had gone to the great stage in the sky, Shakespeare’s closest remaining friends Henry Condell and John Heminges, both members of the legendary King’s Men, embark on a mission to preserve the true works of their friend. Their plan is to publish a complete folio of all known Shakespeare plays. The Book of Will is an intelligent, sometimes funny, and ultimately very moving dramatization of these events.

The play opens with Beck Damron performing a plagiarized version of Hamlet that perverts the dramatic story into slapstick comedy. Damron makes for a deliciously awful Hamlet and instantly sets the stage for a night of total theatrical enjoyment.

From there we join Shakespeare’s surviving friends in The King’s Men, most notably Condell, Heminges, and Richard Burbage. The trio lament on the loss of their friend, and moreover the damage being done to his legacy by companies presenting plagiarized, vastly inferior productions of his plays.

Burbage was one of the most famous actors of the time. He was the first actor to play Hamlet and his interpretation is said to have been almost religious to watch. In this production of The Book of Will, Burbage is played with magnificent scene-stealing power by Herb Metzler. Although the character soon meets his demise, Metzler’s impact resonates long after he has left the stage. It is a command performance.

After Burbage passes unexpectedly, Condell and Heminges drown their sorrows in spirits. In this inebriated state they realize the need to preserve Shakespeare’s plays and hatch a plan to collect all of his works and publish them in a single volume.

Michael Lomenick provides a very well-rounded version of Heminges – a man who started out as an actor but was forced to become manager of The King’s Men to keep the company going. However, his spirit will always be that of an actor. Lomenick turns in an absolutely stellar acting performance.

Rocco Renda gives us an excellent interpretation of Condell. Renda slips easily from drama to comedy and provides a very convincing and endearing character. Lomenick and Renda are well paired and serve as the ideal guides for the audience’s journey.

Joining the duo on their quest are a merry assortment of characters including Tori DeLaney as Alice Heminges, daughter of John. Whether quoting Shakespeare or reciting the dialogue penned by Gunderson, the words slip effortlessly off DeLaney’s lips.

Ben Jonson, a rival of Shakespeare, is presented in bold and brash form by Stephen Loch. Loch gives us a usually inebriated, comedically conceited, and dramatically brilliant interpretation of the playwright and poet.

Dakotah Brown is excellent as Ralph Crane, a scrivener who takes on the daunting task of editing the Shakespeare folio of 38 plays. He is nervous and bookish, but proves highly intelligent when he comes out of his shell.

R. Scott Purdy and Caleb Lee Jenkins turn in very effective performances as publisher Wiliam Jaggard and his son Isaac. Purdy is big and delectably over-the-top as the blind and bombastic senior member of the publishing family. Jenkins is more grounded in reality and really captures the subtleties of the role, including his affections for DeLaney’s Alice.

Among the supporting cast, Aimee Kleiman is wonderful as Elizabeth Condell, wife of Henry. Elizabeth Rude, is excellent as Rebecca Heminges, wife of John and mother of Alice. Additionally, Jeanann Power, Stephanie Hobson, and Jeff Broitman are extremely effective in multiple roles. Their ability to slip into different characters is always graceful.

Providing one of the best performances is John Chambers as Emilia Bassano Lanier. Many historians speculate that Lanier was the infamous “Dark Lady” that inspired Shakespeare’s sonnets. In November 2020, a descendant, Peter Bassano, published a book, Shakespeare and Emilia, claiming to have proof that Lanier is in fact the Dark Lady.

Director Stacey Lind brilliantly cast a man in the role, playing into a long-held alternative rumor that the Dark Lady was actually a man with whom Shakespeare was in a romantic relationship with. Chambers gives a performance so authentic and real, that it fully transports the audience into the world of “what if.”

Scenic design is well done by Natasza Naczas. Costumer Mark Burrows gives the audience a passport to the past with authentic clothing for all the wonderful players. Lighting design by Finely Wedge and sound design and original music compositions by Tim Kwasny really enhance the play.

Director Lind does an incredible job from top to bottom. The actors are all well cast in their respective roles, and the director has clearly pushed them to excellence in their character development.

There are too many delicate directorial nuances that Lind adds to mention them all, but rest assured it’s worth a trip to Edge of the Wood Theatre to witness them. Lind is aided in her artistic mission by assistant director Christ Toft and stage manager Martin Mahoney.

The Book of Will plays Thursday, April 28 at 7:30 PM; Friday, April 29 at 7:30 PM; Saturday, April 30 at 2:30 PM and 7:30 PM; and Sunday, May 1 at 2:30 PM. Edge of the Wood Theatre is located at 6736 N. Loleta Ave in Chicago. For ticket information visit www.EdgeoftheWood.com or call (773) 775-1140.

Peace. Love. Trust.

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