Sunday, December 4, 2011

Equivocation, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Arena Stage

"Knock, knock!  Who's there, in th' other devil's name? Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.  O, come in, equivocator." ---the Porter, MacBeth, Act II, Scene 3.

equivocation = the use of ambiguous statements to mislead or evade.

Remember, remember the 5th of November....this date in England is commemorated to this day commemorating the events of the Gunpowder Plot in which the hapless Guy (or Guido) Fawkes was discovered in a cellar underneath Parliament ready to blow the King, his court and Parliament to smithereens.    This event helped the English government to solidify the vilification the Catholic faith and through the events of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 would eventually lead a century later to the 1701 Act of Succession barring Catholics from the throne.

What is not as well known is that William Shakespeare wrote references to the Gunpowder Plot into The Tragedy of MacBeth, his only play set in Scotland which contains elements meant to flatter King James VI and I.   The King wrote a book on the detection of witches, Daemonology, hence the prominent inclusion of the supernatural in the play.  The King also had a love of pageantry and the plays which Shakespeare wrote during James' reign including elaborate spectacle in the form of masques.    In MacBeth the King's lineage is paraded in the famous "double, double, toil and trouble" scene as the kingly descendants of Banquo, a long line ending in King James himself are conjured from the witches magic spell.

Historically we do not know what inspired Shakespeare to write his plays.  This  has led to fanciful fictional representation, most famously in the Academy Award winning film, Shakespeare in Love.   Playwright Bill Cain has taken the events of the Gunpowder Plot and fashioned from its conspiracy and bloody endings the creation of MacBeth.     The result is a highly literate evening of theater that presumes that the audience is intelligent to follow its very intricate twists and turns.    While, as in most fictional adaptations of history, parts of the history is ignored or condensed for dramatic purposes, Equivocation is, for the most part an engaging evening of theater.   Where the play is faulty is in its length, clocking in at just over three hours in length.    Some judicious editing would tighten the work and make fewer audiences members check their watches as the evening drags to its conclusion.

The play imagines that William Shakespeare, here called Shag, is commissioned by Robert Cecil, the hunchbacked Secretary of State who smoothed the transition to the throne between the childless Elizabeth I and the Scottish King James, to write a true history of the Gunpowder Plot.    Instead of relying on historical events and chronicles as source material, Shag will write a true history of this threat to England using as his text an account written by the King himself.   Shag must also deal with the members of his acting troupe who are alternately thrilled by the challenges of the play-in-progress and concerned that if the ending result displeases the government officials the company of actors may find themselves accused of treason.   Lastly, Shag is haunted by the loss in his own life and cannot deal with his daughter, Judith who toils as a laundress for the actors and tries to forge a relationship with her emotionally distant father.

It is a lot of material to cover in three hours and that is part of the problem with this play.   While the acting is uniformly superb, elements of the story are alternately too detailed to the point of audience boredom or, in the case of the Judith subplot, not detailed enough.    As Judith, Christine Albright is the silent support for the entire company.   Judith is given a few soliloquies in which she comments on the action, giving insight to her father's plight.   Ms. Albright is particularly poignant in a graveyard scene, yet Judith's entire story could be excised from the play without damaging the rest of the plot.

The rest of the ensemble portrays multiple roles.  Richard Elmore, Jonathan Haugen, Gregory Linington and John Tufts are identified in the program solely by their acting company names.   Yet, each man also portrays several meaty roles whether it is the Catholic conspirators, including Mr. Elmore's Father Henry Garnet, the equivocator of history and the piece, or John Tufts gleeful and smarmy King James VI and I.   Jonathan Haugen is particularly memorable as Robert Cecil, the orchestrator of the crown, who is trying to shape the official history of the Gunpowder Plot.

Anthony Heald as Shag is the glue that holds this disparate work together.   He is at once the center of the piece and its true orchestrator.  Mr. Heald's performance cautious and bold, daring and timid.   He evokes Shag's desires to please his patrons, discover the truths of the conspiracy and the plot and somehow deal with the emotional hole in his own life represented by loss and his daughter.

Christopher Acebo's wooden set permits the easy evocation of the many locations of the play.   It is complimented by Christopher Akerlind's lighting design.  The costumes of Deborah H. Dryden are perfect, whether the costumes and utilitarian clothes of the acting company or the glittering ensembles worn by King James.  Director Bill Rauch has for the most part, mined this work for positive and engaging effect.   One wishes he would have reigned in some of the lengthy pauses that are indulged in by some of the actors.

Equivocation presented at Arena Stage by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will be presented in the Kreeger Theatre through January 1, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

1 comment:

  1. It is a curse to be a student of history, and thus it is with the play Equivocation. In the play it is stated that King Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon and became a serial killer of wives and never had a son. It is also stated in the dramaturg's notes in the program that "after Henry's death, his daughter Mary succeeded the throne as a fierce Catholic." Henry VIII was succeeded by his son, King Edward VI. While Edward died six years later at the age of 15, he was a staunch protestant and, through his advisors, he persecuted Mary who wished to continue to hear mass in her household and believed that King Henry's religious settlement should not be changed until Edward reached his majority. At Edward's death, his device for the succession was used to bar both Mary and Elizabeth from the throne. Mary successfully rebelled and came to the throne. While it is true that approximately 300 protestants were burned from 1554-1558, Mary has suffered in history from a spectacular propaganda effort, namely John Foxes' Book of Martyrs. I am not justifiying the burnings, but Mary was much, much more than the Bloody Mary nickname.