Reviewed by Sarah Lockwood
A play about Shakespeare? This could be interesting, I told myself as I walked into the November Theatre at the Virginia Rep Center for the 2014 season kickoff show. I sat down and noted the striking set: a beautiful wooden stage extension that jutted out into the audience and angled toward the front row. Around it, a concave wall of matching wooden panels formed a piece of … of a globe. Ha, the Globe Theatre! I thought, proud of my Shakespearean knowledge. Oh, I’m going to get this.
Bill Cain’s Equivocation was intriguing, entrancing, brilliant – and confusing. Okay, so I didn’t get all of it. Turns out I’m not as well-versed in Shakespeare as is, perhaps, the whole rest of the audience. Howls of audience laughter erupted throughout the play. Sometimes, I was a member of said hyena pack, but often, I scratched my head, humbled.
But don’t worry! You don’t have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to enjoy this complex show. There’s a layer for everyone. Set in 1606, Equivocation is a game of historical what-ifs. William Shagspeare (an alternative spelling used in the play) is commissioned to write a history of the Gun Powder Plot, in which Catholic terrorists allegedly schemed to blow up Parliament and the king along with it. Caught between pleasing the powerful and telling the truth, Shagspeare drafts play after play for his Globe Theater brethren to rehearse. Seeking the facts, Shagspeare interviews jailed conspirators and questions the logistics of the plot as well as the real purpose of his proposed play. Should his art be used as propaganda? To what end? What is his moral duty as a playwright? And yet, can he keep his head if he tells the truth?
When he watches Father Garnet, a Jesuit priest suspected of conspiring in the plot, avoid the prosecutor’s questions on stand, Shagspeare seeks help from the master. “Teach me to equivocate,” Shag asks Garnet. “I want to tell the truth. I just don’t want to get caught at it.”
With so little known about the playwright himself, it’s fun to entertain Cain’s characterization of the Shakespeare, who, coincidentally, turns 450 this year. Rafael Untalan adeptly presents a complex, genuine bard: a grief-stricken father who can barely look at dead son’s twin sister; a people-pleaser who is always quick with a witty compliment; an artist, encouraging his actors to simply “be human” on stage, rather than heroic.
The mere six actors (as Cain intended) were brilliant. Steven Carpenter, Mitchell Grant, Joe Pabst and Nicholas Wilder are a hoot as the Globe Theater actors, each jumping into many other roles, including Robert Cecil, King James, prison guards and conspirators, not to mention the dozens of roles they play as Shag’s actors. (Yes, that’s plays within the play, or playception, if you will.) All four so adeptly – and amusingly – became other people with the flip of a hat or jacket. My favorite character had to be Grant’s Scottish king, with his instant leprechaun accent and royal-pain attitude. But Zoe V. Speas gives Grant a run for his money with her performance as Shag’s daughter, Judith. Her nonchalant delivery of her soliloquy about soliloquys had me in fits. (See, I did get some of the jokes!)
A co-production with Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare, Equivocation shone under the bard-expert direction of Jan Powell. The play had my full attention for all three hours – which did not feel as long as it sounds. Huge kudos to all production members; every piece fit together incredibly well under Powell’s passionate direction, leaving an extremely polished work. Christopher Acebo’s gorgeous globe effortlessly became a prison with BJ Wilkinson’s lighting. And I’m pretty sure you know you’ve choreographed an awesome fight season when the front row audience members are leaning back in their chairs in fear, so congratulations Alexis Black.
The show is recommended for 16 and up and I may even bump that to 18, depending on your teen. Be aware that there is definitely R-rated content, including cursing, explicit descriptions of torture, and quite realistic torturous acts and hangings. Heads will roll. Literally.
Equivocation is an excellent way to celebrate ol’ Bill’s big birthday, no matter your Shakespeare knowledge level. You’ll enjoy the fantasy of his characterization, the possibility in these historical inspirations, and you may even recognize a favorite scene or two from his canon.
Laugh as Robert Cecil tells Shagspeare, “your work will last … I believe your plays will still be done 50 years from now.” Try four centuries!
Equivocation will run through October 19 at November Theatre. Tickets are available at Virginia Rep or call 804-282-2620 for showtimes, tickets, rush tickets, and info on savings for groups of ten or more. Show will be modified for student matinees.