Review: ‘Circle of Will: A Metaphysical Comedy About The Lost Years of Will Shakespeare’ on YouTube from Butterfield Road Productions (*****)

Playwright Jack Grapes as Will Shakespeare in “Circle of Will” by Grapes and collaborator Bill Cakmis. Photo Credit: Alexis Fancher.
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

by Charles Kruger

Did William Shakespeare try to make a comeback late in life, after his retirement to Stratford-On-Avon? Well, why not? Anything’s possible would seem to be the assumption of playwrights’ Bill Cakmis and Jack Grapes in creating “Circle of Will,” a wildly absurdist, yet thoroughly sophisticated take upon the life and times of everybody’s favorite Bard.

The sophistication of their witty script is clearly evident if you give a little thought to its title—”Circle of Will.” In just three words it contains at least half a dozen clever puns. The play is about Will and his “circle” consisting of the acting company of the Globe Theatre as well as his various contemporaries in Elizabethan England. It is also the famously circular Globe Theatre itself. It is also the circular biography of the man who left Stratford-upon-Avon to play upon the stage in London town, only to return to his birthplace upon his retirement, late in life. And of course, famously, his life circle closed elegantly in that his death day was the same as his birthday. (April 23rd). And, moreover, this production itself completes a series of circles in that it is being offered online as a recording of its closing performance 10 years ago, which performance was itself a revival of the original production which occurred ten years before that. Where will the circles end?

And there are many more puns contained in the title, but if I were to try and explicate them here, I might spoil some of the fun.

And the fun is fantastic, from the opening lobby performances that create a virtual Renaissance Faire with magicians and jugglers and soliloquists wandering about to a play with so many twists and red herrings, puns and perversions, witticisms and diversions, that you’ll feel like your brain has been twisted into an Elizabethan pretzel by the time it’s over. Or is it ever over? That vexing question is only one of the many metaphysical conundrums to be encountered in Will’s circle, which turns out to be a labyrinth.

Poor Will Shakespeare is hoping to make a comeback. He has brought his latest play to the home of leading actor Richard Burbage, fully expecting to bring Burbage along to the dress rehearsal. But “Dirk” Burbage isn’t having it, telling Will that his hefty manuscript isn’t so much a play as a doorstop. Their conflict leads to a lengthy metaphysical exploration of the nature of the theatre, acting, plays and playing, truth and fiction, the meaning of time and space, the nature of the theatrical Fourth Wall, the failure of the play “Romeo and Cleopatra” (“I don’t know,” muses Will, “my characters just didn’t seem to mesh”), and many other vital concerns.

The script is an intellectual tour de force presented in the manner of low comedy. The more familiar you are with Shakespeare’s plays, the more you are likely to appreciate the extent of its wit, but this is by no means essential. If you miss one joke, you’ll get another. The supply is limitless.

As Will, Jack Grapes is a hoot, prancing and preening and punning with abandon. He is tortured by the obtuseness of Joe Briggs’ Dirk Burbage, who says things like: “I do appreciate poetry. I just don’t think it belongs in the theatre.”

Dirk Burbage feels that what audiences want is “a simple play with a message that people will understand.”

“What?” counters Shakespeare, dripping sarcasm. “They don’t understand Death?”

A lot of the delight of this performance is Briggs’ marvelous physical humor, which may remind some of Danny Kaye in “The Court Jester” as his personality swings from fae to butch every time he is addressed as “Dirk.”

Throughout the course of the play, the two men are haunted by many of Shakespeare’s characters from Lady Macbeth to Prospero, and a few additional characters who ought to have been created by Shakespeare such as “Grizelda of Beaujolais” and “Ramona of Verona.” As Lady Macbeth, Cynthia Tyson is particularly outstanding in her mad scene, creating a strange sense of being absent while present.

I can’t say much more because I want to avoid spoilers, but you must believe me when I tell you that “Circle of Will” is a circus of a Circle full of sound and fury and signifying…well, you’ll have to figure that last bit out for yourself. It is the sort of play about which nothing can be said with certainty, and nothing can really be trusted, including the contents of this review.

But you can trust me on this: “Circle Of Will” is well worth seeing. Pop some popcorn (or pull out the wine and the edibles) and give yourself a treat.

Highly recommended!

“Circle of Will” can be found on YouTube through an undisclosed date. So catch it while you can! Click here to view. 

Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Circle of Will: A Metaphysical Comedy About The Lost Years of William Shakespeare” by Bill Cakmis and Jack Grapes. Music & Lyrics by Jack Grapes, Josh Grapes, and William Shakespeare. Produced by Tom Brocato for Butterfield Road Produtions in association with MASCHA Theatre/Films. Director: Brian Herskowitz. Set: Martin C. Vallejo. Costumes: Anasuya Engel. Sound and Lighting: Carey Dunn.


Body: Stephanie Nguyen. Richard “Dirk” Burbage: Joe Briggs. Will: Jack Grapes. Walter Richardson (“Gonzago”): Steve Roland. Roger Hyde (“The King”): Bob Downing. Nicholas Bishop: Peter Funt. Thomas Heywood: Bert Connors. Cuthbert, First Eunuch: John Brocato. Quincy, Second Eunoch: Josh Grapes. Julius Caesar: Michael Kzynenski. Lady Macbeth: Cynthia Tyson. C. J. Potter: Ophelia. The Queen: Pam Bohusalv. Ramona of Verona: Christiana Bolaslavsky. Desdemona: Sherrod Klippel. Prospero: Harrison Canto. Lady Prospero: Lucinda van de Velde. Miranda of Naples: Cynthia Connors. Capulet: Omar Truzdale. Grizelda of Beaujolais: Christa Marsh. 

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