Brustein’s ‘Last Will’ a loving coda to The Bard

Anne Shakespeare (Brooke Adams), William Shakespeare (Allyn Burrows), Judith Shakespeare (Stacy Fischer), and Francis Collins (Billy Meleady) in "The Last Will." Photo Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

Anne Shakespeare (Brooke Adams), William Shakespeare (Allyn Burrows), Judith Shakespeare (Stacy Fischer), and Francis Collins (Billy Meleady) in “The Last Will.” Photo Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

BOSTON — The Bard and his bride have been getting considerable face time lately.

Last month, Seana McKenna had her turn as Anne Hathaway in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Vern Thiessen’s “Shakespeare’s Will.”

Now comes the world premiere of Robert Brustein’s “The Last Will,“ the third part of his Shakespeare trilogy.

In the first two plays Brustein, 85, the founding artistic director of both the American Repertory Theatre and the Yale Repertory Theatre now ensconced at Suffolk University, focused on Shakespeare’s beginnings as a playwright (“The English Channel’) and his later involvement with King James I, set against the background of the Gunpowder Plot (“Mortal Terror”).

A noted Shakespearean scholar and essayist, Brustein, in this co-production of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Suffolk University at the Modern Theatre, imagines the playwright and poet’s decision to move back to Stratford late in life, why he left London at the height of his success, and what moved him to make many of the decisions he made, including a mysterious revised will, relegating Anne to his “second-best bed” and leaving the bulk of his holdings to daughter Susanna.

It marks the first indoor production for CSC, heretofore best known for its outdoor summer productions on the Boston Common.

Brustein hasn’t tinkered with the facts as we know them, simply using his research to make reasonable assumptions about what might have happened.

The end result is an entertaining, witty look at Shakespeare during a turbulent, troubled time in his life, from his return to Dtratford in 1612 and his death in 1616.

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she 26, and she was already with child. He spent the bulk of their marriage away from Anne and their three children, living in London.

At the outset of “The Last Will,“ Shakespeare (Allyn Burrows) has just returned to Stratford, vowing to be the father and husband he hasn’t been for the last quarter-century, presumably out of guilt and perhaps due the progression of the pox that he hay have contacted from the Dark Lady, the a frequent subject of his sonnets.

Shakespeare is being torn in all directions with the impending deaths of his two brothers, the fire that destroyed the Globe Theatre and his interest in it, and his sudden suspicions that Anne has been unfaithful to him, possibly with his own brother.

His suspicions even extend to his longtime lawyer Francis Collins (Billy Meleady), who is well aware of The Bard’s previous pronouncements about the legal profession.

The dementia has also caused Shakespeare to imagine himself a character in his own “King Lear” — calling out to his wife and daughters as if they were also characters in his delusion, such as Desdemona or Ophelia.

If there one character who hasn’t been quite fully defined to our satisfaction, it is Anne. Played by Brooke Adams, we feel as if we don’t know her to the same length and breadth of his daughters, the loving Judith (Stacy Fischer) and the seemingly-loving-but-perhaps-not-so-much Susanna (Merritt Janson).

There is intrigue involving Susanna, who is married, and the possibility she might provide her father with a male heir.

Jeremiah Kissel is in fine fettle as Richard Burbage, the leading actor in Shakespeare’s company and his partner in the Globe, who tries to lure Shakespeare back to London..

Burrows, the artistic director of Actors Shakespeare Project, plumbs the full range of emotions as Shakespeare, at times focused and resolute, and then dissolute and rambling as his assorted physical and mental demons take their hold.

Nancy Leary’s costumes are gorgeous and Eric Levenson’s three-level set makes the action more accessible to all in the 185-seat theater, which while beautifully restored isn’t really configured to make it easy for all to see.

Brustein’s ending is a coda to what he has felt about the Bard since he was first exposed to Shakespeare in his youth.

It is hard to say if Brustein’s trilogy will find their way into the canons of a lot of theater companies in the future, but that really isn’t the point.

An artist’s devotion to another artist has both shed light on perhaps our greatest cultural icon’s life and times while providing us with witty, engaging entertainment.

Even if that were all there was, that would be more than enough.

The world premiere of Robert Burstein’s “The Last Will.“ Co-produced by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Suffolk University. Directed by Steven Maler. At the Modern Theatre, 525 Washington St., through Feb. 24. www.moderntheatre.com or www.commshakes.org.

 

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