Shakespeare Keeps Giving at A Noise Within

Morales, Rabb, Elliott, and THE BOOK. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Few of us remember that, in the early 19th Century, this vast country was settled with the help of only two books…the Bible and Shakespeare’s collected works.  By mid-Century, the two had gone their separate ways…reading Shakespeare gave way to traveling Shakespearean companies that, now, seem to have settled into specific locations such as Topanga’s Theatricum Botanicum and Independent Shakespeare’s Theatre in the (Griffith) Park.

            This long-winded introduction is meant to put you, dear reader, into the right frame of mind to learn how the Shakespeare’s words almost remained uncollected.  Happily, A Noise Within just opened an inspired production of a well-imagined The Book of Will, by Lauren Gundersen, that relates what a near-miss was had.

ANW’s thrust stage is perfect for the kaleidoscopic, shifting scenes that make up this play.  We begin with an ornately clad player reciting Shakespeare’s greatest hits, until we realize  that it is simply a garbled rendition of half-remembered speeches from his works.  The moment apty demonstrates the problem — Shakespearean plays abounded after the Bard’s death.  But the scripts themselves did not survive intact.

The opening scene finds members of Shakespeare’s troupe, the King’s Men, agonizing over this state of affairs.  Luckily Richard Burbage (played by Frederick Stuart) remembers everything.  John Hemmings (Geoff Elliott) remembers some roles, Henry Condell (Jeremy Rabb), others.  And, thus, the plan to pull the plays together into one “folio” is hatched.

Burbage’s sudden passing plunges the two men into paroxysms of doubt. Luckily for posterity, their enterprising wives (Deborah Strang as Rebecca Hemmings and Trisha Miller as Elizabeth Condell) effectively cheer them on.  And thus, the immense task of gathering sides, prompt books, and all papers, fair and foul, unfolds.

For what might have become a rather dry recitation of the events that enabled the two men to publish Shakespeare’s first folio, playwright Gundersen has enlivened with the interpolation of snatches of Shakespeare’s own words.  The combination makes for a delightfully entertaining journey.

Although I missed having Frederick Stuart’s Burbage around after the first scene, The entire ANW ensemble reminds what a joy it is to have a company of actors who work so seamlessly together.  As always, Geoff Elliott is wonderful as the beleaguered Hemmings, with Deborah Strang outstanding as Mistress Hemmings, as well as Shakespeare’s widow.  The blustery Ben Jonson, played by Alex Morris, adds his imprimatur to the venture when he contributes his celebrated introduction to the folio, and declares, “He was not of an age; but for all time.” And, in capturing the spirit of this task, Gunderson has provided not only an entertainment but a compelling lesson in tenacity.

The Book of Will continues Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through June 7th at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd,; Pasadena, CA 91107. For tickets, call (626) 356-3100 or online at