The New Jersey premiere of Bill Cain’s Equivocation opened at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison this past weekend. It is a backstage comedy-drama set in the Jacobean era with Will Shakespeare as a central character! It is a pure treat for Shakespeare lovers.
The play concerns the infamous “Gunpowder Plot of 1605” It was an attempt to blow up the Parliament building…with the King in it! It has been immortalized in the nursery rhyme that starts with “Remember, remember the fifth of November.” That date is “celebrated’ throughout Great Britain by many as Guy Fawkes Day with fireworks and bonfires. Fawkes was the only conspirator who was caught with the gunpowder….later, after appropriate persuasion (the non-friendly variety), he provided the names of his co-conspirators. The King was James I, son of the beheaded Mary Queen of Scots. James is also King James the VI of Scotland. He sits on the united throne as the head of the Protestant church.
Now, we get to the highly entertaining play…Bill Cain, a Shakespeare scholar, was inspired to create a play by a visit to the forbidding Tower of London. The play is not only set in the time of William Shakespeare, but features the great man himself with many in-jokes about his plays and life. The play opens with Shakespeare, or Shag as he was frequently addressed, (James Michael Reilly) summoned from the Globe Theatre by the King’s prime minister Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury (Dominic Comperatore). Cecil commissions (as in commands) Shag on behalf of the throne to dramatize a less than honest version of the Gunpowder Plot, written by a less than partial observer…King James I himself (Matthew Stucky). The King has a specific request– that the play include witches!
Initially flattered to be commissioned, Shag reluctantly agrees to set aside his current project, which he hopes to be his masterpiece. When told that it’s about a king (the play turns out to be “King Lear”), Cecil asks wryly, “How does this one die?”“What makes you think he dies?” Shag asks, taken aback.“You’ve killed more kings than any man alive,” Cecil replies sourly.
Equivocation6 Shag’s artistic integrity is challenged, propaganda is not his forte, even though refusal could mean a visit to the Tower’s chopping block. Such a fate would also extend to the entire Globe company of actors since it is a uniquely pure democracy with each member having an equal share…so naturally they would share in Shag’s fate! There is great consternation among the company upon hearing of the royal commission. Initially they reject it, however, once the extent of the danger is fully understood, they beseech the very reluctant Shag to write the play. He writes and discards version after version with his actors repeatedly rehearsing unsatisfactory scenes. Thus, we have a play within a play that provides a fascinating method of illustrating this bit of historical fiction.
As the deadline to produce the play approaches, the players’ dissatisfaction with the numerous script attempts turns to major desperation. As the pressure mounts, Shag continues to search for an equivocating way to convey the truth without angering the king, and receiving a one way trip to the Tower.
In an attempt to gain better insight to the event, he visits two of the accused conspirators. First with Thomas Wintour (Matthew Stucky) who has been severely tortured and is set to be executed, remarkable death scene. Next, in a powerful, dramatic scene with prisoner Father Henry Garnet (Rob Krakovski) who faces being drawn and quartered for his complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, he learns the true meaning of equivocation (to reveal it would be a spoiler- it is not the current definition).
Salvation for the actors comes via the quiet intervention of Shag’s daughter Judith (Therese Barbato). Her father has neglected her since childhood in favor of her twin brother….who is long dead. To reveal her suggested solution would be another spoiler. (Note: If you wish to read a full synopsis visit the STNJ’s website).
This production of Equivocation, directed with great style by STNJ veteran Paul Mullins, is a marvelous, fun ensemble piece in which six superior actors play well over a dozen roles.
Five of the actors are male: James Michael Reilly shines as the great bard; Rob Krakovski is simply outstanding in his dual roles of Richard, the leader of the Globe Company, and as the key conspirator Father Henry Garnet (in the play within-a play) particularly the prison and trial scenes; Matthew Stucky, Sharpe in the troupe, dies well as Wintour, and is a “hoot” as the King….with a fun take of a Scottish accent; Dominic Comperatore is troupe member Nate, plus perfect as the slimy prime minister, Cecil; Kevin Isola, a STNJ audience favorite, clearly has fun with his several roles including Amin, a member of the troupe, and the magistrate in the trial scene. The lone woman is the impressive Therese Barbato as Judith. She is new with the STNJ…hopefully we’ll see her frequently in the future.
The creative team includes: director Paul Mullins, scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, costume designer Nikki Delhomme, lighting designer Michael Giannitti, and sound designer Karin Graybash, fight director Rick Sordelet, aerial effects designer Paul Rubin. Alison Cote is the production stage manager.
This play with its fascinating political intrigue and veracity challenge is a superior production at every level….in other words…it is a theatre gem that certainly no lover of Shakespeare, in particular, should miss.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio September 20, 2015
Equivocation runs about 2 hours and 40 minutes with intermission. It will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. (on the campus of Drew University), in Madison through October 4. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.