By Beki Pineda
EQUIVOCATION. Written by Bill Cain; directed by Wendy Franz. Produced by Colorado Shakespeare Festival (University Theatre, CU campus) through Aug. 6. Tickets available at 303-492-8008 or www.coloradoshakes.org.
First of all, I want to state UNEQUIVOCALLY that this is a wonderful play, full of insights into human nature, theatrically presented by a talented cast of players. The central character dilemma is clearly presented and the various ramifications of different courses of action are thoroughly explored. It is a play about Shakespeare (called Shakespeare or Shag in this version) and his company of players, written in modern language in a manner that illustrates realistically their friendship, their personal differences and their commitment to their “cooperative venture” theater company.
While this is a kind of “you have to have been there” script with twists and turns galore that are better observed than explained, the awkward position that Shakespeare finds himself in involves receiving a commission from King James I’s secretary, Sir Robert Cecil, to write a play that tells the “truth” about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (the precursor to the now-annual Guy Fawkes Day celebrations in England). The truth is that no one knew the truth about the plot, which involved Catholics and Jesuit priests storing barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords with the plan of exploding it during the next opening ceremonies. The point of the plot was to kill the king and most of the lords of the land (both Catholic and Protestant) in order to capture and install his young daughter as queen, as she was known to have Catholic sympathies. An anonymous letter (which could have been written by Cecil himself) was sent to a high-ranking official that disclosed the plot. All involved were eventually captured and executed in exceedingly gruesome ways.
Cecil has created his own version of the “truth” and this is what he wants told in the play Shakespeare is to write. But as Shakespeare does his own investigation into the plot that occurred only months before, he uncovers conflicting information. Allowed into the Tower to interview Thomas Wintour and Father Henry Garnet (later called “a Doctor of Dissimulation” by the Court), he tries to find a way to walk the narrow path between Cecil’s version and what he is discovering on his own. He is in the midst of creating the script for the Scottish play, and since King James is also Scottish, it seems natural to integrate the recently enacted events with his supernatural history play. This script device allows for the very clever use of the actors to play both characters in MACBETH, the people involved in the original Gunpowder Plot, and actors in the company protesting their involvement in politics (“Politics is religion for people who think they are God”).
This is an ideal script for a Shakespeare Festival presentation. It caters to the knowledge the audience arrives with about the plots of Shakespeare’s plays, and allows us to feel smart about ourselves because we can connect the dots between plot points in each. For instance, Cecil complains that he can’t get the blood off his hands from a recent small accident. Bingo—Lady Macbeth! We can laugh appreciatively when Cecil states that Shakespeare is the ideal candidate for his commission as opposed to his contemporaries because he has a reputation of writing plays that, at the end of the performance, leave his audiences “unchanged but feeling somehow improved.”
This was also an ideal cast for the production. The men of the cast (Rodney Lizcano, Hunter Ringsmith, Drew Horwitz and John Hutton) all play multiple roles, changing from one to another with a grace and ease that is beautiful to behold. Never are you lost as to who is playing whom. It is a purposeful little jolt when you become engrossed in a scene between the plotters and then have the actors suddenly drop out of that scene and back into rehearsal mode as a theater company. As Shag, Michael Morgan—always a pleasure to watch—has never been so forceful and in command of the forward movement of the story. His confusion, his resolve, his dilemma, his solution are all within easy reach of the audience. The interplay between John Hutton as the master of equivocation, Father Henry Garnet, when our hero Shag asks him how he manages to walk a truthful line without betraying anything, is brilliant. Hutton also plays theater owner and actor Richard Burbage, who hates being dragged into this complicated situation.
Rodney Lizcano, who plays the duplicitous Cecil, brings both menace and humor to the role. He’s a villain that we love to watch get caught up in his own machinations. Hunter Ringsmith as the arrogant and oddly human Scottish King James I is fun to watch. He also, with confidence, plays Sharpe, the newest (and most talented) member of the acting company and the tortured (and hanged on stage) plotter Thomas Wintour. Local actor Drew Horwitz contributes Armin of the acting company, Robert Catesby (one of the plotters) and Sir Edward Coke, the Inquisitor who gets confessions out of everyone. The lone female in the cast, Elise Collins, plays Shag’s daughter Judith who, not allowed as a female to be on her father’s stage, is a dogsbody for the theater and a constant reminder of the death of her twin brother, whom Shakespeare ignored during his short life. As a character and as an actress, she is possessed of uncommon common sense and a steadfast manner. All in all, it’s an outstanding cast brought to the top of their game by director Wendy Franz.
Stephen C. Jones’s versatile setting, reminiscent of the Old Globe Theatre, works as dungeon, street, royal quarters and stage itself. Extremely clever costuming by Hugh Hanson allows for a flip of a cloak to signal a move between king and lowly actor; the costumes help keep the audience on track with where we are and who is speaking at any given moment. The lighting design, also by Jones, cushions the sometimes abrupt changes between real and “play.”
An indication of how much one recent audience enjoyed the whole evening was the two-minute, much-deserved standing ovation the actors received at play’s end. If you like Shakespeare or plays about Shakespeare, you will enjoy and remember this production.
WOW factor: 9.5