Throughout two thirds of Bill Cain’s political thriller Equivocation, a confused Shagspeare (known to us otherwise as Shakespeare, played by Ted Barton) keeps asking questions and getting answers that don’t make sense. Finally a circumspect Father Garnet (Franc Ross) tells him to look for the question beneath the question and suddenly the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.
What Shag is having difficulty with are discrepancies in the stories each side tells of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The event is still celebrated in England today and concerns an alleged Catholic plot to blow up King James (Dane Oliver) and the Parliament.
The reason dates back to 1525 when Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church so he could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn by having his marriage to Queen Catharine of Aragon annulled. It was then that Henry started a new church, led by him, that would forever divide the country in two. [As a side note, I happen to be watching Showtime’s The Tudors series on Netflix right now and it is a very interesting take on this subject that suggests possible answers that fill in the gaps of what we know to be historically accurate.]
James needs to ensure that the royal version of the Gunpowder Plot becomes the accepted story and who better to make the public believe it than the most beloved writer in England. The king’s advisor and primary henchman, Robert Cecil (Alan Blumenfeld), demands that Shag take the commission, which Shag resists on the grounds that he doesn’t do propaganda. Once he begins writing he further takes issue because he declares it is nothing more than a four act buildup to a finale that doesn’t happen. And yet, little by little he becomes obsessed with finding the truth.
Cain’s script is smart, shrewd, and so brilliantly woven that as the threads of the mystery unravel, not only must Shag figure out what to do with his moral dilemma, but we as audience co-conspirators are also prompted to question what we might do in a similar situation. When do you tell the truth and when do you shade it to protect something dear to you, like your livelihood, or your family, or even your life? And then to watch Tom Wintour (also played by Oliver) tortured on stage or witness the hurt that Shag unwittingly bestows on his daughter Judith (Taylor Jackson Ross)…these are the failings of human nature that reside in us all. In fact, Shag says that we’re all fools, all noble, all royal so it is up to us to decide what manner of man, or woman, we will be.
Mike Peebler directs a nimble cast that handles the razor-sharp turns of the story with immaculate precision. Barton’s everyman ordinariness serves the play’s complexities without creating confusion while Blumenfeld’s sneering Cecil openly acknowledges his underhanded affairs without apology. And then, just as the moment peaks Blumenfeld becomes Nate, one of Shag’s company of players, with a change in gait, posture, and vocal inflection to create an entirely new character as easily as if he was simply picking up a cup.
The same lightning-quick reflexes are required of Franc Ross (Richard Burbage, Henry Garnet and others), Paul Turbiak (Armin, Catesby and others), and Dane Oliver as Sharpe, King James, Tom Wintour and others. These fine character actors display a range that allows the elegant undertones of Cain’s writing to emerge without force while also enhancing the rise and fall of the play’s comedy. It is a special skill of utility players and well-done by all four of the men who are tasked with the multiple character arcs. As the lone female, Taylor Jackson Ross lands every hilariously sad punchline with a deadpan that makes her instantly the most tragic character in the room.
Zach Moore’s lighting design creates a well-defined sense of place as the story bounces back and forth between actors rehearsing Shag’s play and the play itself with its many locations. Ben Kahookele’s colorful Elizabethan costumes somehow make it easier to follow the fast action and also give the swaggering gents much movement to make use of in the folds of their garments. It is also rather uncanny how Barton looks like the William Shakespeare I imagine in my mind from the drawings that exist.
If it’s the details that make the story, as Shagspeare says, then it is Peebler’s direction of Equivocation that concludes an all-Shakespeare summer season at Theatricum in the most thought-provoking way possible. By seeking answers to questions that make us think about how we fit into the world and what our responsibilities are to our integrity, our relationships, and ultimately to ourselves. This production wins at every level. Don’t miss it.
Shakespeare in LA
Sept 5 – Oct 4, 2014
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
Tickets: (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com
The outdoor amphitheater at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Snacks are available at the Hamlet Hut, and picnickers are welcome before and after the performance.