‘The Book of Will’ to bring Shakespeare literature and laughs to James Theatre

On Nov. 18, the James Theatre will put on ‘The Book of Will,’ bringing history lessons, laughs, and Shakespeare literature to audiences.


Lillie Hawker

Actors sit around a table talking about the good old days of Shakespeare during a dress rehearsal for The Book of Will at The James Theatre in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

A group of noblemen are gathered around a table in a tap house, slamming together mugs of ale and laughing in the warm candlelight as they share about and by their good friend William Shakespeare.

From Nov. 17-19 and on Nov. 20, Dreamwell Theatre Company is presenting “The Book of Will” at the James Theatre. This production was written by famous American playwright Lauren Gunderson and directed by local director Adrienne Miller.

Set about a few years after the passing of William Shakespeare, the play tells the story of how Shakespeare’s friends struggle to collect and publish his works in a single folio after witnessing a terrible rendition of one of his stories.

During that time, such a task was especially difficult because paper was expensive, and plays were often written in incomplete folios. Shakespeare’s plays were often recorded by memory alone.

“The Book of Will” is unique in the sense that it is about Shakespeare, but it is not written in Shakespearean language, which is often “flowery, or full of illusions” according to Rip Russell, the actor playing John Hemenges, one of Shakespeare’s friends and King’s Men, the English theater company of which Shakespeare was the lead dramatist.

The language of this play is much more comprehensive and conversational, with a dose of humor. The humor and the happiness the show exudes make it a comedy about one of the most important literary figures in history.

“Lauren Gunderson does an amazing job of keeping history pretty accurate for the important things, and then she’s able to embellish and make it into a story that’s very engaging, so it’s an excellent way to learn your history,” said Madonna Smith, president of the Dreamwell Theatre company presenting the play.

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The play is based on true events in which John Hemenges and Henry Condell, another of Shakespeare’s good friends, work together to preserve the works of Shakespeare in their original forms, therefore teaching audiences history in a way that is engaging.

Dreamwell Theatre chose to present this play in the summer when its Artistic Director Matthew Brewbaker brought it up to Smith. The company chose to pursue it because it was written by Gunderson, whose reputation is well-known in the theater world, and because the work itself wasn’t extremely popular.

“We try to do shows that are maybe lesser-known works, works that we feel promote discussion in the community,” Smith said.

This has been Dreamwell’s mission since its creation in 1997 by four newly graduated college students from the University of Iowa. ‘The Book of Will’ is part of Dreamwell’s 25th season. As a theater company that has never had a permanent home, the James Theatre will serve as its residence for the production of ‘The Book of Will’.

The play is made up of a cast of 19 people, all of whom share great chemistry on the stage. According to Russell, engaging with his cast mates and meeting new people has been the highlight of his experience in the production.

“There are a few people that are relatively new to theater, and it’s always exciting to see them get involved and watch them sort of catch the bug,” Russell said.

Executive Director of Dreamwell Stephen Polchert connected with the James Theater to rent out the space for the play, which will feature several transitions between scenes that the space can efficiently facilitate.

Ray Vanek, the actor playing Henry Condell, has previously worked with other productions at the James Theatre and has seen it used for various purposes.

“It’s fun to use the same space but in completely different ways,” Vanek said.

“The Book of Will” has something for everyone to enjoy and is highly accessible because of its generally age-appropriate and understandable language. It explores family, love, friendship, and the timeless literary contributions of Shakespeare with incredible costumes and comedic conversation.

“I’m so excited to get to share it with audiences and have them enjoy it as much as we do and enjoy these characters as much as we do,” said Vanek.