‘The Book of Will’ – The Battle for Shakespeare Revealed

By Ernest Kearney  —  Playwright Lauren Gundersen has a flair in farming history for fascinating feminists – astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt who devised a galactic “measuring tape” (Silent Sky,) a two-time Nobel Prize honoree home-wrecker (The Half-Life of Marie Curie,) and a siren of the Enlightenment (Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight) and others.

She has the eye for solid stories and the skills to fashion them into entertaining little crowd-pleasers.  But while I can appreciate the craftsmanship of her shows they always strike me as displaying more smarts than art, more thesis than theatre.

Well, that certainly is not the case with The Book of Will currently gracing the stage at a Noise Within.

Now permanence is the most pernicious illusion of modernity, so perhaps that’s why this subject packs some punch, or maybe it’s just jarring to conceive of a world without Shakespeare.  Not just for those of us who love theatre and the plays, but for anyone who sang West Side Story tunes in the shower, or has gone on “a wild goose chase,” or told someone they’re “the apple of my eye.”  What would the world be without Shakespeare?  What would Agatha Christie have done for titles, or Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance do to look foolish?

Believe it or not, that we have the plays of Shakespeare are nothing short of a miracle, and Gundersen reveals the secret behind that miraculous miracle, and probably the actual secret behind every actual miracle.


People coming together from a sense of duty, of friendship, of responsibility, of whatever, and putting their “better angels” into overdrive.

It is 1623.  Shakespeare has been dead for seven years. 

John Heminges (Geoff Elliott) and Henry Condell(Jeremy Rabb) two of Shakespeare’s partners in the King’s Men playing company and Richard Burbage (Frederick Stuart) the actor who first played Hamlet, Richard III and others have fled to Heminges’ ale house which his wife (Deborah Strang) and daughter (Nicole Javier) operate. 

There they desperately struggle to wash away the foul taste of the performance by shriveled Hamlet (Kevin Morales) in a butchered play purporting to be Shakespeare’s own. 

After Burbage has finished raging he’ll “Kill the pimple” who mangled his part, the men set to recalling the days of their theatrical glory and sharing reminiscences of the magnificent plays that Will had written for them

Suddenly they’re pained by the realization of the pending loss of those plays.  Remember, it is an age when theatre is considered vulgar entertainment and the debate is still ongoing whether God is offended by giving actors Christian burials; as for the works of playwrights….well, see my final note on that. [1]

The truth of the time is, as our heroes know, the plays of Shakespeare live on only in the memories of those who saw them and those who played in them.  After that, the rest is silence.

Thus they set into motion an undertaking to secure the plays’ future by publishing them together in a single volume. 

This at a time when barely 15% of Elizabeth’s kingdom was literate, printing was costly and books were few. It was a daunting mission. 

Even our heroes didn’t have easy access to the plays of Shakespeare.  At the time actors were only given sheets with their lines for rehearsal, and while playbooks of the works produced were kept by all the theatre companies, those of Will’s were all lost when the Globe was set ablaze by cannon shot in 1613 during a production of Henry V.

So the task undertaken to save Will’s plays becomes a commitment bordering on obsession fueled by the passion of the participants.  It becomes a crusade.  Not one with some asinine objective like freeing some arid patch of a distant desert or ridding Tallahassee from the plague of drag shows, but the holiest of all crusades – the salvation of Shakespeare for the ages to come.

Gunderson lets us ride along on that crusade and is at her best doing so, infusing this work with more emotional sincerity and genuine humanity than I have found in her other plays which felt somehow better suited for a soap box.

The Book of Will is written for a stage, and written wonderfully, resonating with the joy and gratefulness of one who is still enthralled by the magic that an empty space can summon.

Directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott have shown their wizardry in mounting a sharp and richly woven tapestry for this tale which opens on a stunningly suitable set by Frederica Nascimento and concludes with the triumphant visual hallelujah of Nicholas Santiago.

Of course, the burden of the show falls on the cast who met the challenge with that special aplomb only talent bestows.

Rabb and Elliott are the sole performers not called on to serve multiple roles and thus supply the story with its strengthened spine.  Stuart returns as the loathsome publisher Jaggard, pushed towards redemption by the morality of his son (Stanley Andrew Jackson). 

Miller is given the production’s heaviest load, including the role of Emilia Lanier the best candidate for the bard’s “dark lady” and she carries her tasks like an Atlas in drag (Drats!  Now this review will be banned in Florida!)     

Kasey Mahaffy as the scribe Crane and Alex Morris as playwright Ben Jonson are each splendid in their scene stealing tug of war.

The Book of Will manages to touch all the bases: it’s entertaining, engaging, educational and emotionally moving which in my book is a winner.

At first Gunderson’s play seems to be a love letter to William Shakespeare, in the end it’s a love letter written to those who saved him for posterity, and a letter we all should sign.

[1] In truth it’s a miracle that any of Shakespeare’s plays survived history’s murderous maelstrom.  Check out David McInnis’ Lost Plays Database at the Folger Shakespeare Library (Lostplays.folger.edu).  From 1570 to 1642, the great age of Elizabethan theatre, over 3,000 plays were staged.  543 have survived.  About one-sixth.  We have thirty-seven plays of Shakespeare today, there are others we don’t have such as an earlier version of Hamlet and Love’s Labors Won.  Some scholars believe, including collaborations, an additional thirty-seven works by Shakespeare have been lost.  There are no surviving plays of some Elizabethan playwrights including Edward de Vere (Take that Oxfordian dogs!)


The Book of Will

By Lauren Gunderson

on stage thru June 4, 2023


a Noise Within

3352 E. Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107

For Tickets and Information



go to

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

No comments


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.