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Unraveling Shakespeare's last day

William Shakespeare died at age 52 on April 23, 1616, at home in England's Stratford-on-Avon, apparently surrounded by family and friends -- fellow playwright, poet and pal, Ben Jonson, among them. His death was attributed to alternate chill and fever, general ague, a final, typical analysis of the time.

But, sinister rumors persisted then and now. "Will" seemed in good health, albeit grouchy since his return to Stratford from London, his place in theatrical history secure -- 37 plays penned, along with random verse and sonnets galore -- so maybe a little burn-out could be expected. He was home at last, his revels ended, a mystery to his family: long-suffering wife Anne, daughters Susanna and Judith, a couple of sons-in-law. Like characters from his last plays, the world-weary Prospero from "The Tempest" and the reconciling Leontes of "The Winter's Tale," it seemed a good time to make amends, soothe and schmooze.

"The Careful Glover," a new play by Jim Baines, winner of the annual Maxim Mazumdar play competition and now in its first performances anywhere, has a theory about Shakespeare's last day. Ben Jonson wasn't in Stratford by accident, Baines offers. Both Will and Ben are concerned about the political climate of coercion and overall royal vengefulness back in London. Now that Will was relaxing at home, who would tell of these things, stir the pot, make the powers that be uneasy, shake up the "theater's timidity?"

Ben arrives and meets spirited, restless Judith almost immediately. She takes him to her father, where the two swap memories, sing songs and get soused. It is in these moments that Will admits to having one more script almost finished, one that should get tongues wagging again back in London. Will gets Ben to promise to get the play produced. We're left to wonder if that ever happened. Will just possibly placed his hopes in the hands of the wrong guy.

Interesting idea and very well written by Baines, now at work writing about the Bronte Sisters.

The play's dialogue has an easy flow to it, with toasts to Will contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, but nothing scholarly to wade through. There are some yawning minutes in Act II when Will is awash on his own version of Macbeth's moor, a storm raging in a transparent nod to Shakespeare's fondness to show nature's fury when earthly relationships -- individuals, families, countries -- go awry.

The Alleyway's Neal Radice directs, and he tells the story well. It is, after all, a slice-of-life tale about The Bard of Avon at home, a late-life crisis of sorts at center. No need for anything large and ponderous.

Radice has the luxury of Saul Elkin, a noted Shakespearean, in the role of Will. The master at work; a very wise portrayal. Strong, too, are Pamela Rose Mangus, Joyce Stilson, Katie White as the feisty Judith, David Mitchell, a pleasant surprise as a former Shakespeare "player," and Richard Lambert (on loan from his New Phoenix Theatre) fine as the larger-than-life Jonson. David Hayes and Michael Seitz complete the cast.

***

"The Careful Glover"

3 stars (out of 4)

World premiere drama at The Alleyway Theatre through Oct. 3; 1 Curtain Up Alley.

For information, call 852-2600.

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