It’s interesting to be reviewing Equivocation soon after reviewing Anonymous. At first glance, there are a number of similarities between the two works; they both feature the creative process by which Shakespearean plays came to the stage, they both feature dark intrigue and political plots, they both suggest the official historical record to have been false in some respects, and they both make Robert Cecil out to be a villain. But where Anonymous was a poorly conceived failure, Bill Cain’s play Equivocation is a stunning triumph. It also showcases a sly jab against the Barders who brought us Anonymous, when the villainous Robert Cecil tells our protagonist Shakespeare, “You’re the only major literary figure whose very existence will be disputed!”
The conceit of Equivocation is that Robert Cecil commissions Shakespeare and his players at the Globe to do a play around what is then a current event—the Gunpowder Plot that landed 13 plotters in the Tower awaiting execution. Unfortunately, the players soon find the whole concept dramatically impossible—“We get four acts about an explosion that never happens!” And also implausible—“Where did they put all the dirt? How could they build a tunnel without workmen?” As the main protagonist Shakespeare interviews all the parties involved, he becomes increasingly convinced that the official version is false. He’s faced with a grave dilemma: Does he write the government sanctioned lie or does he write the truth? Or perhaps should he equivocate?
The performances are uniformly excellent. Anthony Heald manages a layered and textured performance as the conflicted Shaq while Christine Albright is simply spellbinding as his troubled daughter, Judith. They are the only two actors who remain as one person throughout the show (though Shaq occasionally goes undercover). Everyone else is juggling multiple parts. John Tufts is the talented but impetuous young actor, Sharp, an impassioned young Jesuit Gunpowder conspirator, and the callow foppish, bonnie, King James. Richard Elmore plays Shaq’s best friend, Richard, the shrewd leader of the Globe players, a Jesuit priest in the Tower, and MacBeth. And of all the roles Jonathon Haugen plays, he’s never more compelling than as the cold hearted, ruthless, talented, Robert Cecil who, at one point, gives a measure of pathos—or is that seeming vulnerability just another one of Cecil’s lies?
Equivocation at Arena Stage is not just a play, or even a play within a play, but several different plays within a play, including King Lear, multiple different drafts of The True Story of the Powder Plot, and ahem…that “Scottish play.” It’s also got government use of torture as a theme, the Catholic-Protestant split, soliloquies that criticize the whole concept of soliloquies, multiple critiques and analysis of Shakespearean works, commentary on the artistic process, the nature of government propaganda, special effects, use of Immanuel Kant’s famous problem regarding whether you should lie or not if a murderer comes to your house asking about the victim, and actors playing multiple parts not only throughout the play but sometimes even in the same scenes. This is both a testament to the energy and versatility of the cast and to Bill Rauch’s brilliant direction to choreograph all this coherently. If all this sounds complicated, let me assure you it is! Do not see this show if you can’t handle convoluted; you’ll be hopelessly lost within the first fifteen minutes. But if you’re ready to have your mind blown, then go!
Photos by Jenny Graham
The Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, NW