THE LAST WILL is a theatrical bauble– a shimmering amalgam of wishful dreaming, informed speculation, historical fact, literary sleuthing, and some damn fine acting– conjured by Robert Brustein, and presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Suffolk University where Brustein is Distinguished Scholar in Residence.
The play, which is having its world premiere, is the last chapter of Brustein’s trilogy about the life of the Bard– though not the last word. There is much mystery about Shakespeare’s departure from the world stage–how he died, why he gave his wife and one daughter short shrift in his will, and the state of his union to that wife Anne Hathaway –eight years his senior and whom he married when she became pregnant.
The charismatic and facile Allyn Burrows plays William Shakespeare who at age 48 has returned to Stratford where his wife Anne, played by the ever vibrant Brooke Adams, lies (literally in bed!) in wait. Adams mines all the humor and earthiness in Brustein’s elegant and witty “Elizabethan-ese,” as the increasingly delusional Will mistakes Anne for the duplicitous Desdemona, or the wayward Gertrude.
As Brustein imagines it, Will ‘s brain–decaying from the ravages of syphilis contracted from the “Dark Lady” of his sonnets, begins to wobble between fantasy and reality. He imagines all of the faulty imaginings of his characters: cuckolded like Othello, betrayed by a daughter like Lear, and–like Leontes in THE WINTER’S TALE– questioning the legitimacy of his twins, one of whom is his late, beloved little boy Hamnet. Will is at once actor and author; all his psyche’s a stage, the boundaries between his fears, dreams, memories, and tangible life –as fluid as the layers of reality he so brilliantly evoked in his plays.
By his side on this last journey is his confidant, soul mate, and friend Richard Burbage– Shakespeare’s star player who first acted Othello, Hamlet, and Lear onstage. Jeremiah Kissel plays the sumptuously talented Burbage and it’s a part he was born to play. The florid emotion, his overflowing delight in the very playing, the punning, the drama–Kissel devours the part and we relish it.
Will is also in need of some good estate planning– but he’s not getting it from his conniving lawyer played with a snivel by Billy Meleady. This version has the cagey attorney contriving that Will’s last will remain the enigmatically stingy document that history reports, leaving to Anne the infamous “second-best bed,” and his daughter the Judith (Stacy Fischer) a pittance compared to her sister Susanna (Merritt Janson).
But Brustein’s version ferrets out another truth about Will and Anne’s marriage, a truth beyond the faded document, which casts a bittersweet glow as we continue to search for the last of Will through the endless prism of what he left behind. Head to the intimate recesses of THE MODERN THEATRE and see THE LAST WILL through February 24.