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The Last Will
The Last Will, which bookends Brustein’s trilogy on Shakespeare, is a concoction of history and fantasies on the Bard. Before coming to New York, the play had its world premiere in Boston in February 2013, under the aegis of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Suffolk University. The other two installments of the trilogy are The English Channel (2008) (an exploration of the “Dark Lady”) and Mortal Terror (2011) (an insider’s look at “The Gunpowder Plot”).
For dramatic effect time is compressed in Last Will, shrinking down the historical time-frame of 1612 to 1616 into the span of a few days. Set in Stratford-upon-Avon it opens on the eve of Shakespeare’s retirement and runs apace to his death at age 52.
The action is divided into a dozen tightly- knit sections, each sub-titled with a famous quote from a Shakespeare work. The narrative takes some razor-sharp corners and surreally shifts between the past and present tense. At pivotal points, characters are likely to segue into a famous soliloquy (Shakespeare’s wife Anne launches into “The quality of mercy is not strained . . .”) or Shakespeare will confuse his daughter Judith with Cordelia (Shakespeare’s real-life daughter Judith did become estranged from him).
But all eyes and ears are on Shakespeare here. Whether accusing his wife Anne of marital infidelity or his daughter of betrayal, he is suffering from one form of delusion or another.
Lighter moments break in when the Bard engages in conversations with the actor Richard Burbage and Francis Collins, his boyhood chum and the lawyer helping him to write his last will. Brustein artfully manages the non-linear progressions of the play, largely because he makes it reflect the deteriorating condition of Shakespeare’s mind and body.
Incidentally, Brustein isn’t the first modern writer to pen a bio-drama on Shakespeare in retirement at Warwickshire. The English playwright Edward Bond got there first with his play Bingo, which premiered in Devon, England back in November 1973. While everybody else was sentimentalizing the Man-from-Stratford, Bond chose to portray the retired playwright as a "corrupt seer." Brustein breathes a very different spirit into his Last Will. Without white-washing the Bard, he incorporates his plots, characters, and speeches into the historical backdrop of early 17th century in England.
The piece sometimes sounds too clever, the characters too eloquent, and the Bard too Lear-like. However, in spite of its forced theatrical moments, the play’s merits outweigh its theatrical flaws.
The ambidextrously-talented Pendleton does double-duty as director and actor here. His directing is even-handed throughout, and his depiction of the dying Shakespeare has all the necessary crotchets.
While Pendleton is the ace of the evening, the rest of the cast (Stephanie Roth Haberle, Jeremiah Kissel, Christianna Nelson, David Wohl, Merritt Janson) certainly don’t fade into the shadows. All bring conviction to the characters each of whom eventually comes to terms with the grey-haired Bard.
Though it’s tough to single out any one scene for special praise, you won’t likely forget the one early on when Burbage breaks the news of the disastrous fire at the Globe Theatre on June 29, 1613. To rub salt in the wound, Burbage tells Shakespeare that he predicted the event through Prospero’s persona: “The great Globe itself, and all which it inherit, shall dissolve, yea like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.”
Much of Stephen Dobay’s period set design looked right, but its crimped yellow paper, symmetrically placed near the back wal, seemed more distracting than anything. More effective are Travis McHale’s lighting design, and Laura Crow’s period costumes.
Brustein, who presently is the scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University, has worn the hat of artistic director, theater director, critic, teacher, playwright at prestigious venues like Yale and Harvard. Who better than this modern man of the theater to pen the life of another man of the theater? Emerson once said: “Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare.” Indeed, that maxim rings true. Nobody can altogether capture the myriad-minded Shakespeare whose real legacy is in his immortal works.
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