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American Players Theatre has staged a big ol' love letter to its loyal audiences and the literary genius who served as the inspiration for the company in the form of its current production of Lauren Gunderson's "The Book of Will." Gunderson's brainy comedy — and the first of her plays APT has ever produced — is the perfect play to commemorate the company's 40th anniversary season. And APT's the perfect company to produce it.
With "Book," Gunderson imagines a life-or-death legacy quest. it's been three years since Will Shakespeare has given up the ghost, and the remains of the King's Men, including John Hemminges (Jim Ridge) and Henry Condell (Jim DeVita) are dying in very different ways watching vastly inferior actors swipe and warp his legendary prose for profit and fame. When the most grandiloquent of their number also kicks the bucket, taking his vast institutional knowledge of the plays with him, the survivors frantically scramble to collect the disparate pieces of the Bard's surviving work into a single folio before they're lost to history.
Let's start with the assembled star power of this show. I previously referred to "The Book of Will" as APT's "Avengers: Endgame," and I stand by that description. The cast features at least seven actors (DeVita, Ridge, Melisa Pereyra, Colleen Madden, Tracy Michelle Arnold, David Daniel and La Shawn Banks) who can carry or anchor an APT production. Watching the first five on that list sitting around in a late-night alehouse, bantering about the Bard's best characters and scripts felt like the stage equivalent of the post-credits movie scene. It's an amazing collection of actors we may never see collected like this again on one stage.
Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime moments, the scene in which Richard Burbage (Banks), the King's Men's star actor, effortlessly runs through a greatest-hits cut of Shakespearian speeches and soliloquies to put down the talentless hacks who've crashed his favorite alehouse, is a bring-the-house-down moment that's like the insult scene from "Cyrano De Bergerac" multiplied by a million. You'll find yourself wishing you could watch Banks perform an entire "MacBeth," "Hamlet" or "Henry V" on the spot.
The number of Easter eggs tucked into this show would fill the White House lawn. When Alice (Pereyra), John's spunky barmaid daughter, references key female Shakespearian roles like Rosalind, Lady Macbeth and Viola, she's name-checking characters the actor herself has played at various points during her Spring Green career. (Same goes for Colleen Madden's Elizabeth, who recalls Beatrice from "Much Ado About Nothing.") The running gag about Henry's undying love of "Pericles," one of the Bard's most meandering and rarely performed plays, isn't just an endless source of gut-busting laughs. It also manages to rope in memories of APT's imaginatively wackadoodle production of the play in 2017.
Given the sheer star power on stage, it's remarkable that Daniel, who plays Ben Jonson — the egotistical, drunken poet laureate who was also Shakespeare's primary literary rival — manages to swipe every scene he's in, like a full mug of ale left unattended on a barroom table. Jonson ought to be an odious lout, but Daniel, who has yet to meet an emotion he can't evoke on stage, imbues him with a sentimental nobility that endears him to the audience. The Victorian collar doesn't hurt, either.
The play isn't just about giggles and in-jokes, however — not by a long shot. It also deals directly with grief, loss and mortality and the ways in which art can help us come to terms with them and soldier on. The scene that begins the second act finds Ridge and DeVita's characters in the darkened Globe Theater, sharing devastation and heartbreak in the way only longtime friends can. It's also a wonderful touch that Gunderson's script doesn't consign Madden's Elizabeth and Arnold's Rebecca to peripheral roles. Both women are inspirational to their actor husbands and integral to the success of the adventure. "Not everyone gets a chance at a legacy," Arnold's Rebecca tells Ridge's John when his flagging doubts threaten to derail the folio.
When the play's final scene turns its metaphorical gift into a literal one, we're presented with perhaps the most wonderful scene of all —the entire cast embracing and sharing the enduring wonder and beauty of Shakespeare's genius — in a staging that feels almost Disney-esque in the levels of magic it creates.
Because of the scheduling and casting challenges associated with collecting this many A-list Core Company members on the stage at once, APT was only able to carve out a handful of performances of "The Book of Will." You're a bigger fool than Feste, Touchstone and Trinculo combined if you don't find a way to get tickets and see this one. Especially since those of us who've already seen it will likely be angling to go back and catch it a second time.
"The Book of Will" pays through Oct. 5 in the Hill Theatre.
Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.