Equivocation is a six-course meal of a play, not turkey and stuffing but some rarer and darker bird, with sides of squashed hopes, whipped religious feelings and humiliation pie – and yet, somehow, leavened with a yeasty and salty wit.
It is also a magic act, in which four actors in the company of the King’s Men – resident playwright, William “Shag” Shakespeare – instantly transform, by slight costume changes or shifts in light – into the great actors on England’s political stage: the ferocious Sir Robert Cecil (Jonathan Haugen); his antagonist Father Henry Garnet (Richard Elmore) and the King of England (John Tufts). It is – and I mean no sacrilege by this – much like the moment in which ordinary wine is transformed into the blood of Christ in the Catholic Mass, in that it relies in part on faith and context, and uses the latter to obtain the former.
It is also a feel-good play, in this sense: some entertainments insult your intelligence, but this is the opposite – a play which reminds you of the nobility, understanding, and grace which is your heritage, and the heritage of all human beings. A good play by a mature playwright will often show technique in the first Act and wisdom in the second, but in Equivocation the wisdom and technique are so tightly wedded that your first gasp of recognition will come in the very first scene, and you will not stop surprising yourself for the rest of the play.
It is, in short, every inch the prize-winning play that it is, and it is given a full-out, heart-stopping performance by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Arena Stage.
Our subject is the Gunpowder Plot. In the third year of the reign of James I, British soldiers discovered Guy Fawkes guarding thirty-six barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords, and soon thereafter arrested a baker’s dozen Catholic conspirators, who had sought to bring an end to Catholic persecution by bringing an end to the persecutors. Equivocation begins a few years later, with Cecil commissioning Shag (Anthony Heald) to write The True Historie of the Powder Plot. The bard is reluctant in the extreme, but Cecil – a master at convincement through torture – also has more subtle means of persuasion: cash money and flattery. He has selected Shag, he says grandly, because “I believe your plays will still be being done in fifty years.”
We then see something not seen before on stage: the Globe Theatre rehearsal room, in which the King’s Men work out a new play by the Bard of Avon. The first draft is schlock Shakespeare: high rhetoric but empty of content and emotion. Even Richard Burbage (Elmore), that first among equal who so wanted to do the play (rehearsals for Lear were going badly), is dissatisfied, and the high-strung young Sharpe (Tufts) is apoplectic. Shag realizes that the version of events Cecil imposed on the play makes no sense, dramatically or politically, and so uses his own persuasive powers to investigate the plot more deeply. He interviews Thomas Wintour (Tufts), an admitted conspirator, and later Garnet, who admits nothing, and as they tell their stories their lives unspool on stage, with other actors assuming the roles of the other characters in their lives. These stories, in turn, morph into successive versions of The True Historie, and what begins with stories about priests and politicians and kings and generals finishes as the work of Richard and Sharpe, Nate (Haugen) and Armin (Gregory Linington), back in the rehearsal room.
Playwright Bill Cain sweetens the story, as Shakespeare might have, with a ghost and a secret force. The secret force, who works to limit the rapacious Cecil, is the young King James, a fey, witty man who owes his crown to Cecil, and who hates him. “We’re related, you know,” he purrs, gesturing to Cecil. “His father killed my mother. That makes us brothers.” The King takes pleasure whenever Cecil is discomforted, and the King’s amusement emboldens Shag to take a wonderful act of final revenge.
The ghost of Hamnet – Shag’s young son – haunts the great playwright, and the presence of Hamnet’s twin, the icily unsentimental Judith (Christine Albright), seems to drive Shakespeare into deeper despair. It is this hole in Shag’s heart which makes him seek out Garnet, and learn the art of equivocation – of misleading without lying.
Except where the King’s Men are actually performing one of Shakespeare’s play, Cain has the characters speak in modern tongue, but the play proceeds with the force and effect of a Shakespearean drama. It is bloody, like a Shakespeare play (“You’ve killed more kings than any man alive,” Cecil tells him. “Your brain is a graveyard for royalty.”) The stakes are the highest imaginable: the immortal soul vs. the loss of all on earth and hideous death. The writing is gorgeous and like Shakespeare, Cain has faith in his actors to deliver the goods.
The faith is well placed. Heald, a multiple Tony nominee and Obie-Award winner, may not be the sort of Shakespeare you expect to see. He is a working-class Shakespeare, brilliant but not slick, clever but not particularly sophisticated, familiar with the foibles of man because he himself has so many. He is, in short, the sort of Shakespeare who might have actually walked the streets of Avon and London, the son of a glover, a fierce womanizer who prized wealth and status and who was not – if recently-found evidence is suggestive – above an occasional toke of cannabis at home.
The rest of the cast is at their best when they portray the great men of the day. Elmore is magnificent as the Jesuit Garnet, invoking the vision of the humble parish priest inculcated in us from years of popular culture and then, just at the right moment, showing the diamond-sharp edge of the man’s thought processes. He is less persuasive as Macbeth, where it is less important to be convincing.
Tufts is fabulous as James, and convincing both as Sharpe and Wintour; three men suffering different forms of torture. Haugen gives us the Compleat Cecil, a clever, nasty man who, like Shakespeare’s Richard, suffered from a deformed spine. Haugen makes Cecil, despite his impairment, an exceptionally agile fellow, and to see him swaying from side to side as he stalks Shag like a predator makes him all the more terrifying. And Albright’s thin, precise voice works superbly for Judith, a woman who knows that she is unwanted, and is resolved to embrace indifference in return.
Equivocation is, believe me, an easy play to do badly but there are a cornucopia of rewards available for the company that does it well. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Director Bill Rauch do it wonderfully, and if you go, you will leave Arena with your mind as sleek and well-fed as your body was last Thursday.
Equivocation runs thru Jan 1, 2012 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for Performing Arts, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC.
By Bill Cain
Produced by Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Arena Stage
Directed by Bill Rauch
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes, including one intermission
- Winnefred Ann Frolik . WomanAroundTown
- Trey Graham . Washington City Paper
- Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Rachel Murray . ShowBizRadio
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
Maggie Lawrence . Star Exponent
- Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Connie Morris . MDTheatreGuide