If there's anything theater geeks love more than Shakespeare plays, it's plays about Shakespeare, and this season has seen a surfeit. Something Rotten! gave us Shakespeare as Elvis Presley, while Taking Shakespeare explored a Bard akin to James Baldwin. Now, Equivocation delivers a Shakespeare who wants to be Aaron Sorkin.
In Bill Cain's 2009 play, now being staged by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at Gremlin Theatre, an alternate-universe "William Shagspeare" (Damon C. Mentzer) is enlisted by Secretary of State Robert Cecil (Peter Simmons) to write a play that will popularize the government's version of the events known as the Gunpowder Plot.
That was the 1605 plan to blow up the House of Lords. Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators, which is why Brits set off fireworks in his name every year: to celebrate the foiling of the plot. Cain was inspired by questions about the plausibility of the official version of events. Could the government have been involved in the plot, for anti-Catholic propaganda purposes? If there's a play about Shakespeare that Alex Jones could love, this is it.
Although Cain weaves some authentic details of the Bard's life and workthem into the play, he's less concerned with actually imagining what a Shakespeare courtroom drama would sound like than in adopting the Jacobean setting for an examination of ethics in the context of a densely-plotted drama. There's a lot of yelling back and forth about the truth: what it is, what it means, who can handle it, etc.
Director Amy Rummenie's production is light on its feet, which is a good thing, since it has a lot of ground to cover: three hours' worth, including a 15-minute intermission. Six actors portray over a dozen characters as the narrative slides back and forth between past and present, with ambiguous recollections informing Shakespeare's unfolding play. It's to the credit of both Cain and Rummenie that the story remains fairly clear, although you'll want to keep the program notes handy for reference and it won't hurt if you hit Wikipedia while you're waiting for the show to start.
As well-executed as it is, Equivocation is definitely too much: a subplot involving Shakespeare's daughter drags and distracts, despite actor Eva Gemlo's energetic attempts to counter the show's disproportionate focus on grumpy auld men. Simmons aptly simmers as the self-hating Cecil, but Mentzer's Shakespeare lacks gravity. Mitch Ross, Edwin Strout, and John Heimbuch help glue the ensemble together — all the more impressive in the latter case, since he had to jump into the role just before opening when a prior actor parted ways with the production.
Companies like to roll out their fluffier fare in the summer months, which leaves Equivocation the clear choice for theatergoers who prefer a nice meaty drumstick to chew on. It will tide Anglophiles over while they wait for the Renaissance Fair to roll around, or while they're waiting for the next season of The Crown. With live theater, binge-watching is the only option.
IF YOU GO:
550 Vandalia St., St. Paul
Through June 24
Find tickets here
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