at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Equivocation by Bill Cain
This world premiere production is stuffed with clever concepts, interesting plots, brilliant acting, spectacular execution, and meaningful messages. It’s an artistic tour de force bursting with importance and complex stories which are determined to cross centuries of time to reflect the current events of 2009 (or, at least George Bush’s 2001-2009 torture-burdened court).
But, it is disappointment to have to sit through such an overwrought and under-edited excellent draft play. I am puzzled why a typical amateur error of piling on content was allowed to progress to a full-blown production on stage. Listed in the Playbill as 2 1/2 hours, the actual running time is 20 minutes longer. An excellent version of this will require only 90 minutes and will strip away 90 or 95 of the 100 plot lines and complications.
The play’s conceit is a good one: William Shakespeare is engaged/ordered by King James to produce the official story of the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare becomes convinced that the events did not occur as the King asserts. Shakespeare then begins an exploration of “equivocation”, a technique of avoiding lying AND death when questioned by too powerful authorities.
An additional excellent decision by the author is the limiting of the cast to only six actors while there are many more roles. The actors are meant to double- and triple-up, reinforcing the sameness of people who are supposedly very different from each other.
The language — except when pointlessly profane — is sharp and fun. Conversations snap, yet the King’s court language differs from the Shakespeare’s company’s dialog which differs from the interrogation scenes’ wordings. The script lets the audience keep straight what’s going on even with the minimal staging and the multi-roled cast.
So far, so good. And, add in the performances by the actions, the quality jumps to excellent.
Anthony Heald (“Shag”/Shakespeare) guides the action from one venue to another comfortably with a low-key, almost everyday-man style. He’s the only one-role male actor, and his steadiness keeps the audience’s head above the swirling of plots and scene changes.
The other men on stage are terrific in playing multiple roles and switching seamlessly but definitively among their assignments. Richard Elmore is good as Shakespeare’s partner/foil in the play-within-a-play acting company, but he is a tremendous power in his scenes as the Catholic priest. Jonathan Haugen is a wonderfully evil, self-knowing, and determined adviser to the King, while John Tufts has two major parts, each of which are perfectly done and look like fun. Gregory Linington continues his streak of delivering low-key, right on performances; his parts are small in this play, but I still know that I would happily watch him read the phone book. Finally, Christine Albright is delicate, but clear, as Shakespeare’s daughter (and apparent lust object to Tufts’ play-within-a-play character).
The staging is sparse and powerful. It gets out of the way allows the actors to get on with their craft. It’s hard to think of an approach that would work better, if another take would work at all.
But, but, but… the raw material provided by the playwright is just not yet able to be called “acceptable” much less “excellent”. Here’s why:
- There are way too many good ideas still loose — very loose — on the stage. There’s a plot line about Shakespeare’s daughter reminding Shakespeare of his dead son. This plot doesn’t go anywhere, although it’s played off on in the final (unsatisfying) scene. The daughter is also kissed a couple times by John Tuft’s actor character. But why? Maybe because both real-life actors are getting married in the Fall? That’s as good a reason as any. At any rate, everything with the daughter is kinda not needed.
Nor is there simply room for 50% of the other bits written into the play. For example, we either need to know more or less about King James’ Prime Minister’s father in Equivocation having been spoofed as Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And, what was with Shakespeare’s acting cohort Richard’s constant threats to leave the company or his jealous reactions to the younger actor played by Tufts?
It was just too much.
- I hate being slapped across the face with the dead mackerel of “did you get it” lines. Equivocation is blatant in making sure you don’t miss the modern importance of its 16th Century goings on. Only a poster of George Bush could have made its scenes and comments on torture and tyrannical government more clear. Yet, the script kept explicitly calling attention to the timelessness/timeliness of these evil acts.
I get it. I didn’t like Bush anyway. I never voted for him. But, please let the actions speak for themselves and trust that the audience is smart enough to drag the 16th Century into the 21st when it’s appropriate to do so!
- Pointless shock techniques annoy me. Equivocation uses spoken vulgarities frequently and stupidly.
Cain writes too many scenes with off-the-cuff f-words and s-words. They 1) don’t shock and aren’t meant to, so they 2) merely date the play to our current era where we are open to emotionless swear words. When the Puritanical pendulum swings, if this play were still around, future directors would have to Bowdlerize the script.
The choice of modern vulgar language is even more weird considering Shakespeare’s own rich use of innovative curses. Why didn’t Cain employ any of those in-Century invectives?
Worse was the creepy downstage display of Richard Elmore’s bare butt early in Act I. Elmore’s butt is a fine example of a 60-year-old buttocks, but we simply didn’t need to see it. There was an audible, “Eeew” throughout the audience as Elmore turned his back and took off his clothes. Was his act supposed to be shocking? Why did it happen? It had no on-stage story purpose. It was just distracting.
Swearing and nudity should be used for effect, not just tossed into the on-stage stew.
There’s much (too much) to like about Equivocation. I hope the playwright learns from this perfect production of his flawed script how to do the re-write that will make the play coherent and truly a unified work of art.