BOSTON — Robert Brustein has been thinking Shakespearean thoughts of late. He’s written one book of historical criticism, “The Tainted Muse,” and a trilogy of plays about the Bard in the last six years or so, all of which have been both enjoyable and accessible.
The finale of the trilogy, “The Last Will,” is probably the most entertaining, helped no doubt by a sterling world premiere by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (coming in from the cold) and Suffolk University at the Modern Theatre (through Feb. 24). And what a cast director Steven Maler has assembled – Allyn Burrows, head of Actors’ Shakespeare Project, plays Will as he returns to Stratford to live out his final years. Brooke Adams plays his wife, the former Anne Hathaway; Stacy Fischer and Merritt Janson (of Wellfleet and Lenox fame, respectively) his daughters; Jeremiah Kissel his actor-pal, Richard Burbage; and Billy Meleady his lawyer.
What if, poses Brustein, Shakespeare returned to Stratford, partly out of guilt from abandoning his family and partly out of being riddled by the pox, presumably from the Dark Lady, the muse of some of his sonnets? And once there, what if he was no longer able to tell fact from fiction and started confusing his family with characters from his plays, particularly his wife, Anne, with Gertrude from “Hamlet” and his loving daughter, Judith, with Cordelia, from “King Lear”? Throw in the handkerchief from “Othello” and you’ve got yourself one messed-up Stratfordian dude.
Maler keeps Brustein’s questions percolating at a brisk pace, smoothly moving the talented troupe around Eric Levenson’s three-tiered set — a helpful device at the Modern, whose sight lines aren’t the best.
But while “The Last Will” is Brustein’s most entertaining and playful of the trilogy, it’s also his least insightful to the extent that his book and the other two make you think of Shakespeare’s work differently – or at least anew. “The Last Will” only makes you think of Shakepeare, himself, in a different way – addled and Lear-like in his final years, given to fits of jealousy out of “Othello” and “The Winter’s Tale.”
And oh, Susanna. Brustein’s depiction of Shakespeare’s eldest daughter makes Lady Macbeth look like Desdemona. In a Boston Globe interview, Brustein said that everything in the play could have happened and he knows far more about Shakespeare’s family than I do. But a quick perusal of the Internet doesn’t lend much credence to his melodramatic plotline for Susanna.
Still, far be it from me to deter Brustein – or theatergoers — from having fun by speculating on a bit of Shakespeare’s biography that is open to interpretation. And there is fun to be had in “The Last Will” from Brustein’s evocations of the plays, some obvious and others subtle. The cast is certainly having fun, except perhaps for Adams, who is new to Shakespeare’s world, and hers is certainly the flattest performance. The star power is great – I think she’s a terrific actress – but it seems a bit unfair to put a newbie in the same ring with the others, some of the most gifted Shakespearean actors in the state.
She does bring a warmth to the production, though, which is matched by Burrows, Kissel, and Fischer. (The other two aren’t supposed to be warm and fuzzy.) And for all the melodrama in the piece, Brustein has a lovely ending to the proceedings. It may not leave you any wiser about Shakespeare’s work, but it makes you appreciative about exactly what he left us all.