It's one of the intriguing whydunnits of literary history: what possessed Shakespeare to leave his wife, Anne Hathaway, no more than his "second-best bed"? In Shakespeare'sWill, a one-woman play about Hathaway, Canadian dramatist Vern Thiessen posits that her husband blamed her for the death of their 11-year-old son, Hamnet. Playwright and critic Robert Brustein, in the final part of his own trilogy about the Bard, comes up with a wilder explanation, inventing a waning, delusional Shakespeare so sunk in the extreme emotions of his characters that he lets them bleed into the dealings of his life. In The Last Will, the recently retired Bard is an ill man whose works play in his head as if on endless iPod shuffle, turning him into a paranoid amalgam of Hamlet, Othello, Leontes, and especially Lear.
Brustein knows his Shakespeare cold and calls on the canon cleverly (though if there is such a thing as scholarly crack, he may be on it). In The English Channel, he presented a young Shakespeare in the midst of his affair with the Dark Lady and cadging good iambs from anyone who rushes through his digs. In Mortal Terror, the most substantive of the plays, he tied the Gunpowder Plot against King James to the writing of Macbeth. The Last Will unfolds in a series of Stratford-set scenes, each introduced by a surtitle culled from the plays. Shakespeare has returned home with a venereal disease that has left his hands too gnarled to write and his mind a bubbling cauldron of fact and fiction. And though there is manipulation by eldest daughter Susanna and a lawyer, the Bard's imagination proves his worst enemy in family atonement.
Unlike Stephen Greenblatt's book, Will in the World, The Last Will is ingenious but purely speculative, and hardly serious: an informed entertainment. Yet in Steven Maler's lively, if discordant, world premiere for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Suffolk University (where Brustein is Distinguished Scholar in Residence), it's amusing to watch while playing connect-the-quotes. As Allyn Burrows's Bard lies dully dying, there is even a modicum of pathos. But the most compelling character is neither Shakespeare nor his kin, but Richard Burbage, played with valedictory flair by Jeremiah Kissel. In the end, Burbage opines, as he showers the audience with pages, the canon, not the bed, is the legacy that counts.
THE LAST WILL :: Modern Theatre, 525 Washington St, Boston :: Through February 24 :: $10-$45 :: 800.440.7654 or commshakes.org