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Equivocation — ActorsNET at Heritage Center Theatre

images (31)Shakespeare is given a daunting assignment in Bill Cain’s sprawlingly engrossing play, “Equivocation.”

He, by order of Sir Robert Cecil, who speaks for the British monarch, James I, is told to write a full-length drama about the Gunpowder Plot, the famous 1605 case involving Guy Fawkes, who conspires with others to blow up Parliament while James and the legislators are present as a way of protesting James, a Stuart and of Roman lineage, reneging on a pledge to restore Catholicism as the state religion in England.

Cecil wants to be fair to Shakespeare, who Cain and his characters call Shagspeare because that pronunciation matches the playwright’s signature. He allows him one week to compose the play. When Shakespeare protests, Cecil relents and grants him two weeks. He also gives him a purse full of money for his troubles.

Shakespeare is in a quandary. He is under royal edict, managed by a scoundrel who beheads as casually as others have breakfast, he is in the midst of finishing his own play, “King Lear,” sections of which have his actors griping, and he knows little about the Gunpowder Plot. Cecil has given him the details, allegedly written by the king, but Shakespeare thinks Fawkes’s foray with 36  barrels of gunpowder lacks drama and can’t see how he can fulfill Cecil’s request. Especially since James specifically asks that the Gunpowder play include witches.

As members of his company at the Globe complain bitterly about “Lear,” Shakespeare bemoans the obsequious nature of writing a play that so directly lauds James and that has so little texture. He believes that since Fawkes and his cronies failed, there’s  no fitting ending for the play. Cain begs logic with that idea. A foiled plot can be as dramatic as a successful caper — Look at most thrillers, mysteries, and detective novels for that. — but we are willing to go with Shakespeare’s assertion because “Equivocation,” as directed by Cheryl Doyle for ActorsNET, entertains so well, we want to see where Cain’s imagination will take us.

The answer Is various places. “Equivocation” is a mystery of sorts. Everyone in England knows what happened. Shakespeare’s dilemma is to figure why and how it happened in a way that will make it more than intrinsically dramatic. The Bard being such a great psychologist, he wants to get into the heads of the conspirators and perceive their individual motives, as he does with Brutus, Cassius, and the others in “Julius Caesar.” A play about Rome is far enough off in time for the playwright to be willing to assign reasons to random characters. The Gunpowder Plot is fresh in Londoners’  minds. Acquaintances of the conspirators may come to the play. He has to be more careful to denote their characters and intents truly.

Shakespeare’s inclination is to return the king’s money and admit he cannot write the required play. When he broaches this with Cecil, the wily counselor hints at dire consequences. He also consents to The Bard interviewing  the conspirators who have not yet been hanged, cut down alive with a broken neck, drawn and quartered while conscious, and beheaded once the nerves have just about deadened all likely pain. The one surviving plotter Shakespeare may not get to meet or interview is Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit who has been conducting mass in hiding since Elizabeth I’s Protestant reign, who was the confessor to the conspirators, and who may have been the architect of the entire plan to revenge James’s broken vow.

Cain is constantly thickening “Equivocation’s” stew, and Doyle and company keep up admirably with all of his tangents and machinations.

While under duress to satisfy Cecil and the king, Shakespeare must also cope with dissention among his troupe about whether to do the commanded play. Richard Burbage, the great leader of the company, is against the undertaking, even to the point of going to the receipt box and handing Shakespeare the fee to return to Cecil. The Bard’s critical and cynical daughter, Judith, also pipes in to provide her father with further angst. Shakespeare is haunted by the death of Judith’s twin, his son, Hamnet, from a plague in 1596 when the boy was age 11.

Meeting one of the conspirators, Thomas Wintour, age 24, is difficult enough for Shakespeare who sees both commitment and remorse in the plotter. Finding and speaking to Garnet changes his attitude towards his royal assignment as well as his life.

Garnet, a Jesuit and therefore among the Catholic intelligentsia, is the author of a treatise on equivocation, the art of not committing yourself or, in Garnet’s terms, via Cain, also a Jesuit, the practice of addressing the question actually asked instead of the one literally asked. For instance, someone may blandly ask, “Were you at home last night?” when the information he is she is going for is, “Who moved my keys from the table so I can’t find them now?” Garnet is of the mind that Shakespeare’s questions to him are leading to something else, that Shakespeare is equivocating, just as he, Garnet, will equivocate in his answers. Garnet also plants the idea in Shakespeare’s head that perhaps the king is not as keen on a play about the Gunpowder Plot as he is about a play that puts him and the Stuart line in a positive light. Both Cecil and Garnet are quick to point out that Shakespeare was not shy about vaunting the ancestors of Elizabeth I and that she should not demur from charming James by a similar means.

“Equivocation” lasts three hours, but ActorsNET general manager, Joe Doyle, in welcoming the audience, is accurate when he says the play flies by. So  much is going on, and all of it is so interesting, you are always engaged and eager to find out a new fact or learn how much bit of information relates to another. Cain’s also amuses as he shows Shakespeare assembling “King Lear” and another of his most lasting and produced classics. Even the subplot concerning The Bard’s relationship with Judith engenders curiosity when Garnet gives Shakespeare pastoral advice on how to improve it.

As “Equivocation” unfolds, we are treated to glimpses into literary, theatrical, political, religious, and domestic worlds. The necessity for an actor to make a living is shown as pointedly as the philosophy and intrigue that would inspire humans to destroy hundreds of others for a cause.

Once we see Garnet and Wintour, we know Shakespeare has a play. The problem is Shakespeare is an artist who would want to show both sides of a situation. He fears that if he makes Garnet and the conspirators sympathetic, even if for a moment as part of dramatic obligation, Cecil and James will have him carted to the Tower or worse.

Cain cleverly insinuates Garnet’s concept of equivocation as a defense strategy into his play. He sets Shakespeare thinking of how he can placate Cecil and satisfy James’s desire without having to write about the Gunpowder fiasco. James being Scottish and unpopular provides him his clue. The insistence on witches also becomes inspirational.

“Equivocation” becomes fun because it is so full of ideas and theories to chew on. It also includes characters who represent the highest level of craft. Cecil is the consummate politician, smooth and unwavering, oozing charm while having gallows at his disposal. This is a man full of guile who can back his smallest notion with daunting power. Barry Abramowitz captures all of his oiliness and muscle at ActorsNET. Garnet is placid and shrewd. He presents as a benign and peaceful man of God, but he has an encompassing mind and knows how to twist any story, incident, or controversy to his benefit. George Hartpence finds every nuance in Garnet’s cleverness, as keen and as honed as Cecil’s but revealed with more tact and class. Notice how Garnet is willing to share his meager prison repast, even his wine, with Shagspeare. Hartpence is also excellent as the beset Richard Burbage, whose company comes close to mutiny in supporting Shakespeare over him when doing the Gunpowder play or its replacement comes to a vote.

In a post-play discussion, Cheryl Doyle says she would never have undertaken “Equivocation” if she could not assemble a cast that could handle its twists and turns and cunning personalities. She also talks about the group effort to solve conundrums and keep Cain’s play accessible.

All of Doyle’s care shows. Nothing seems confusing or jarring in ActorsNET’s “Equivocation.” The ensemble masters anything difficult and works together as a unit. Abramowitz and Hartpence are joined by Dale Simon, John Bergeron, Andrew James Gordon, and Morgan Petronis to realize Cain’s interesting work. All acquit themselves well.

Dale Simon is a workaday Shagspeare. He has no airs of the artiste and rests on no apparent laurels. He is an integral member of a cooperative theater company, and he has several people to appease before his words are heard by an audience. His approach to writing is practical. His creativity and lofty language are for the stage. Given to his own devices, he is plain and pragmatic.

Shagspeare’s encounters with Cecil enervate and confuse the author. He cannot figure out how to tell a man with so much power, and such alacrity to wield it, that the project he proposes is flawed from a theatrical point of view.

His dealing with Burbage and his fellow actors are just as exasperating. Bergeron plays a troupe member, Sharpe, who cannot understand why Edgar has to be nearly naked and risk catching a chill when he disguises himself as Tom ‘Bedlam in “King Lear.” Every actor playing a witch wants to ham up this great chance at characterization. Hartpence’s Burbage is so upset about dissension and what we considers a bad business decision, he is ready to quit acting and dissolve the company.

Then, of course, there’s Judith who rolls her eyes at practically everything her father says and writes. And there’s Wintour, whose easy disposition and repentant pleas as a young husband and father touch Shagspeare’s heart, and Garnet, whose calmness and profundity influence Shagspeare greatly.

Simon wends his way skillfully through all of these moods, revelations, and relationships. He is an author who has curiosity as well as the experience to know what does or doesn’t contribute to a watchable play. He can be both the frightened courtier and diplomatic subject to Cecil, who after all, needs to please James as much, if not more, than Shagspeare does. He can be the doubtful but open-minded witness to Wintour’s suffering and the willing recipient of Garnet’s wisdom. Even with Judith, you see Simon’s Shagspeare trying to crack through the thick barrier of ice Judith has built between her and her father.

John Bergeron, with his deep resonant voice, displays range as he goes from playing the grousing actor, Sharpe, to the scared and repentant Wintour, to the childlike and playful James who calls Cecil “Beagle” and who has no compunction about coming on stage if it suits him. In one remarkable sequence, Bergeron plays Sharpe and James simutaneously, the actor having to commune with the king at times. Thus, Bergeron plays a scene with himself, sitting and slapping a crown on his head while assaying James, declaiming with all of his baritone gusto as Sharpe.

As Wintour, guilty though the man is of conspiracy against the king, Bergeron elicits sympathy, ours as well as Shagspeare’s.

In addition to playing Cecil so winningly, Barry Abramowitz plays an outspoken member of Shagspeare’s company and makes an impression in that role as well.

Andrew James Gordon is chameleon-like in his ability to distinguish between several roles and differentiate them all distinctly. He makes his deepest mark as Sir Edward Coke, who brings eloquence and skill to his prosecution of Wintour, Garnet, and other Gunpowder Plot conspirators.

George Hartpence exudes great patience and intellect as Garnet and great impatience and gut feelings as Burbage. Hartpence alters the physicality and tone of both characters. His performance shows his vast experience as an actor and his ability to bring his characters to the forefront.

Morgan Petronis is wry and flippant as Judith, always having something fresh to say to Shagspeare and his colleague and always turning frosty when dealing with her father.

Cheryl Doyle manipulates all of Cain’s ideas and plot lines with a master’s hand. Her production is smart and seamless. Doyle also designed the costume, which are wonderful, especially the coats for Shagspeare and Burbage and the gold-lined maroon cape with ermine collar for James. One of Cain’s great touches is having Cecil, almost a king in power but not in birth, found asleep wearing the king’s ermine-collared cloak.

Bill Cain not only crafted an engaging play, he had to write in various voices, including composing Shakespearean verse for the rehearsed Gunpowder play. The author shows his mettle both an entertainer, a poet, and a provoker of thought.

“Equivocation runs through Sunday, November 16, at ActorsNET in the Heritage Center Theatre, 635 N. Delmorr Avenue, in Morrisville, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 15. Tickets are $20 with discounts for seniors and WHYY members. They can be obtained by calling 215-295-3694 or by visiting www.actorsnetbucks.org.

 

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