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The Last Will

Austin Pendleton's title character is as manic as the play itself.

Austin Pendleton and Stephanie Roth Haberle in The Last Will
(© Kim T. Sharp)

Enter William Shakespeare, an aged, disease-ridden, depressed, and demented version of the great bard audiences have come to know and love. Robert Brustein's 80-minute play The Last Will (currently playing the June Havoc Theatre) about Shakespeare's final days and the chaotic indecisions concerning his will is a poetic mess of Shakespearean quotations and newly written verse.

After Shakespeare's retirement, Austin Pendleton's twitchy and frenzied version of the famous scribe, Will, cannot differentiate between fact and fiction (due to a fatal STD), blending Shakespeare's iconic plays with his surprisingly similar life. Will moves back home to wife, Anne (Stephanie Roth Haberle), after his extended absence as a husband and father. Haberle's Anne ironically seems to embody our 21st century Anne Hathaway's tendency toward the overdramatic; they both need to tone it down.

Brustein's prosaic writing is one of the only redeeming factors in this perplexing play. The well-written script successfully fuses Shakespearian language with a modern, speculative story taking place in Elizabethan England. The Last Will embarks on Will's plight to disinherit both his youngest daughter, Judith (Christianna Nelson), and Anne. This after being led to believe by his dying brother that Judith was born out of an affair. Greedy elder daughter, Susanna (Merritt Janson), conspires to gain sole inheritance of Shakespeare's properties as her father plunges deeper into psychosis. In conjunction to the unfolding familial drama, fellow actor and confidant Richard Burbage (Jeremiah Kissel), continually attempts to persuade Will to return to the London stage despite his deteriorating mind.

Throughout the play, Will incessantly confuses his family for the characters in his plays. At first the parallels between the aging ruler King Lear and the poet who brought him to life are intriguing, but after a while you wish he would stop calling Judith Cordelia and Susanna Goneril. The comparisons between the infidelity of Hamlet's Gertrude and that of Anne with brother Gilbert is also an interesting parallel, but it is one that is taken too far. The overused connections lose their appeal less than halfway through the short drama. It also does not help that the actors struggled with their lines at the performance I attended. Frequent slips and stumbles led to many a mumble and awkward sigh as they attempted to regain footing in this rhythmical script. Pendleton's manic Will pulled these goofs off better than the sane characters of the play, but still failed by epic proportions. At least Pendleton has the excuse of having stepped into the role last minute after original Shakespeare, Peter Cameron, pulled out of the production.

The scenic design by Stephen Dobay consists of a simple table, chairs, and bed. This basic setup allows the story to transfer from locations easily. Despite this efficient set design, it is difficult to differentiate conversations between characters and locations because all of the actors occupy the space simultaneously. There is no clear location at any given point of the production and it is not decipherable until midway through any given scene.

The casting puts forth other challenges. Since age plays a significant role in the production's plot, the differences amongst the cast are clearly noticeable. Pendleton's Will looks 20 years older than Haberle's Anne, who is supposed to be older than Will. Sister Susanna's relationship with Lawyer Collins is also hard to believe because Janson is significantly younger than Wohl. These gaps further increase the awkwardness in all the intimate scenes between the couples.

Regardless of the overall befuddlement of The Last Will, the cast gets an A for effort. By the end they seemed to emote real feelings of distress as Will finally succumbs to his literally mind-boggling STD. It is hard to tell, however, if the cast's tears are ones of grief over Will's oncoming death or of the play's. The production feels like it is student-run, but with professional adult actors. By the end it is not only Shakespeare looking for forgiveness, but the play itself, begging the audience for bearing with it for the past 80 minutes. As a faint light emits from offstage, audiences can only hope that the failing poet will take the queue. Go toward the light Will, just go toward it.