Telling the truth in difficult times
Shagspeare is commissioned to write a propaganda play and we get… Macbeth
William Shagspeare (Steven Barkhimer) is approached by PM Robert Cecil (Maurice Parent) to write a play recounting the “true history” of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It will be the story of a failed attempt to blow up Parliament that is valiantly uncovered and quashed by King James I of England (Ed Hoopman) — in other words, a good, clean piece of propaganda. The lucrative commission is welcomed by the troupe of actors, who are wearying of rehearsing a bizarre play entitled King Lear. As Shagspeare works on the script and digs deeper into the details of this “plot,” he comes to realize that this piece of propaganda is not as clean as it originally appeared. Unwilling to serve as a mouthpiece for an unscrupulous, power-hungry Cecil, Shagspeare pivots and presents the king with a “Scott-ish” play, one that even includes witches!
The reason that you should go see Equivocation, however, is not its plot, though it is stimulatingly intricate and politically astute; it is the caliber of the acting and the top-notch script. Barkhimer delivers a masterful performance of a very ordinary, yet extraordinary, person conflicted between acting according to his principles and doing what is expected of him. His facial expressions, his body language, the way he varies the pace, tone, and volume of his voice draws you in and he becomes Shagspeare. I first saw him perform a year ago in Richard III and he was incredible. Nearly each one of the actors has a chance to showcase their versatility, switching rapidly between roles that each manage to convey their own distinct character. Ed Hoopman is hilarious as King James, replete with a lilting air and well-done Scottish accent. He switches expertly between this role and that of the swaggering, slightly insecure actor Sharpe.
The script features aphorisms in the vein of Wilde and Shakespeare himself — the kind that are sweet on the ear and appealing to the sensibilities. For example, commenting on the Act of Uniformity, Shagspeare remarks that “uniformity is the death of drama.” The comedic timing and subtlety of some historical references and humor elevates this play to another level. Cecil threatens to apply enough pressure to Shagspeare that he will forget how to spell his own name, a wink at the audience who are no doubt more used to a different orthography.
Shagspeare’s daughter, Judith (Kimberly Gaughan), is a wonderful addition to the ensemble. We see Shagspeare struggle with being a father and we get some great dark humor and snarky jokes about Shakespeare’s works, delivered in soliloquies, asides, and mutters. Although the audience at the preview performance was small, genuine laughter frequently echoed off the rafters. Seamless and creative scene changes resulted in dream-like transitions between different times and places, reality and rehearsal. The performance takes place in an austere, Romanesque church making for an overall more intimate and hallowed experience.
There is just enough mystery revolving around the Gunpowder Plot and just enough tangible links between the Plot and the writing of Macbeth that Bill Cain’s exploration of a series of events that theoretically could have taken place is a stroke of genius. There is a poetic irony in a story that was supposed to be about the king saving the day transforming into a play about the bloody downfall of an overreaching monarch. The Actors’ Shakespeare Project is putting on Macbeth in rotation with Equivocation until Nov. 11.