Theatre review: The Book of Will at the Utah Shakespeare Festival

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Theatre review: The Book of Will at the Utah Shakespeare Festival

Utah Shakespeare Festival complex on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah.

Utah Shakespeare Festival complex on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah.

Photo Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

Utah Shakespeare Festival complex on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah.

Photo Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

Photo Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

Utah Shakespeare Festival complex on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah.

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Cedar City, Utah, has hosted the Utah Shakespeare Festival each summer and early fall for the past 57 years, featuring a handful of William Shakespeare’s plays and other offerings staged in three theaters on the Southern Utah University campus. It also offers a free, interactive Greenshow every evening with singing and comedy– entertaining for kids and adults alike– as well as free daytime seminars about the plays.

The festival’s high-quality productions are invariably excellent, employing voice coaches, fight and movement directors and often original music to complement the exceptional acting. And if you haven’t been there in a few years (like me), you’ll be delighted by recent upgrades to festival facilities, including a Shakespearian sculpture garden.

This year, the festival offers performances of Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Henry VI Parts Two and Three, plus an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, an Arthur Miller play and two other non-Shakespeare plays.

One of those– Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, staged in the open-air Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre– is based on a true story related to the bard, set three years after his death in 1616. Three of his actor friends– Richard Burbage (Todd Denning), Henry Condell (René Thornton, Jr.) and John Heminges (Chris Mixon)– watch as his works become distorted and staged for quick profit by upstart producers. Moreover, the three actors who know the original lines best are aging and even dying. How can they ensure that Shakespeare’s actual words survive intact for future generations?

The answer, the friends realize, is to compile Shakespeare’s plays into a book, or folio– no easy task in the early 17th century. The strength of this play is how the humble act of putting a book together becomes both funny and meaningful. The dialogue is fast-paced and witty, including running jokes about one of the actors’ unlikely favorite play, Pericles; whether to use an unbecoming portrait of Shakespeare for the folio cover; and the loquaciousness of fellow writer Ben Jonson. The friends and their loved ones must scrounge for copies of script pages, decide which of those versions are accurate, who owns the copyrights and how to get funding to produce the book, all while suffering poignant life issues of their own.

The professional actors all play their parts exuberantly, with Denning as both Burbage and Ben Jonson, Betsy Mugavero as Heminges’s daughter Alice and Mauricio Miranda as editor Ralph Crane inhabiting their roles especially naturally.

Staging adds to the play’s dynamism and includes original music, creative lighting, a voice-and-text coach, rhythmic printing-press choreography and folio pages strung together and hung from rafters like flags, eventually raining down on the actors and audience.

Just as The Book of Will celebrates Shakespeare’s words, the whole festival– set in a splendorous landscape– honors his genius and that of other writers since. Though it’s a fair drive up the 15 Freeway (or a shorter flight), experiencing this or any other play at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this summer is well worth the spirit-lifting excursion.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival continues through Oct. 12, with various play schedules. Visit bard.org for a calendar, tickets and other information, or call the box office at (435) 586-7878 or (800) PLAY-TIX. Ticket prices range from $20 to $77.