Monday, October 31, 2016

Lamb’s Players Season Opener, “Equivocation” is smart, funny and engrossing.

“Equivocation” by Bill Cain is an intricate piece of theatre that combines fact with fiction, juxtaposes plays on plays and within plays, speaks to words about words, introduces characters at odds with themselves and provokes conversations regarding life and death decisions. It is now on stage in a regional premiere at The Lamb’s Players Theatre on Coronado through Nov. 20th

In a word it’s a complicated piece of theatre. Cutting through to the nitty -gritty: “It’s a play that never gets written about an event that never takes place.” (Stage Matters).

With patience and close attention, you will feel a sense of satisfaction that you ‘got it.’ It’s intended to make you think, chuckle, challenge your recall of Shakespeare's works and consider that by evenings end, you were privy to some excellent theatre.

Robert Smyth and Francis Gercke
The underlying message in Cain’s play is to understand the art of ‘equivocation’ or “How do you tell the truth in dangerous times?”  

Briefly! Punt, bunt or equivocate.

Or…during cross examination that could result in life or death answers, try ambiguity, hedging and quibbling with the truth. Just take a listen to the answers coming out of the mouths of our elected officials right now. But I digress.

Let’s go back to the days of William Shakespeare, say around 1605. By this time Shakespeare or Shagspeare, as he was called, had by now penned most of his plays. “People will go to your plays as they used to go to church. Reverently.” (Cecil)

It wouldn’t have been unusual say for a Robert Cecil to request that he write another play about the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605, or the Catholic Conspiracy. Cecil, a most powerful and persuasive man was the 1st Earl of Salisbury and minister to Elizabeth I of England and later James I of England/ IV of Scotland. There is no doubt that he had the King's ear. 

Lto R Brian Mackey, Ross Hellwig(centrer), Paul Eggington and Francis Gercke
“The Gunpowder Plot” or the “Gunpowder Treason Plot or the Jesuit Treason” was a plot to kill the King. All this in the name of religion. Robert Cecil, no Catholic lover he, wants Shag to finish writing the ‘the Kings’ official version of the Gunpowder plot, and have his players act it out at The Old Globe.

13 Catholic men were responsible for the Gunpowder Plot.  All were under the leadership of Robert Catesby. He was the so -called instigator. Guy Fawkes another conspirator, was accused of planting 36 barrels of gunpowder in a vaulted room under Parliament.

Fawkes was to light a slow burning fuse to the loaded kegs thereby killing the Protestant Monarch. Their plan was to replace him with a Catholic leader. Fast-forward, the men were all caught and tried, tortured found guilty and hanged. To this day November 5th is celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night.

At the time of Cecil's request that Shag write this play, his rag tag group of actors ‘The Kings Men’ were in rehearsal for a play about a King (Lear). Later, he will have written “Macbeth” or “The Scottish Play”. These also were in the beginning stages of becoming lasting legacies.

In our play Cecil gives Shag (a masterful, nuanced and convincing Robert Smyth) the information he wants in his play but he wants the official version. He was told…’it must have witches. Definitely witches.’ Most believed that Cecil used the gunpowder plot as a tool for his own political ends. Some believed he was behind the plot. Others claim that he knew about it but let it play out a bit before taking any action.

There was no love lost between the two men, but their journeys crisscross throughout. Shag protests that he can write such a play. ‘There is no plot.’ A furious Cecil holds his toes to the fire insisting he must. Can Shag write a play that tells a lie and still live with himself? Can Shag tell the truth and live?

Shag, is in a lose/lose situation. Now under the threat of jail and possible death himself, he hedges claiming that his actors are a ‘cooperative venture’ and he cannot make the decision himself. “Two weeks then. No more.” “But be careful what you say to me. I speak for the King. And he has no experience of cooperative ventures.” (Cecil)

Robert Smyth and Paul Eggington
The play zigzags back and fourth between rehearsals, infighting with members of the acting company with Sharp, Nate and Armin (Ross Hellwig, Francis Gercke and Brian Mackey as Madman, Fool and Old Man) taking on the roles of the clowns (as well as others) with a bit of infighting around the company’s members.

Ross Hellwig, Caitie Grady, Francis Gercke, Robert Smyth and Brian Mackey
The tension between Richard Burbage (Eggington), Shags leading actor and Sharp (Ross Hellwig) another hot head actor, is one more diversion in a play with enough off shoots in it.

For the most part the comic antics of the others adds some humor to the evening as they scramble around the stage in their witches costumes (Jeanne Reith) as scenes from Macbeth make their way into the story with references to equivocation. ‘I… begin/To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend /That lies like truth.’

Shag and his not so friendly encounters with Cecil, who is played with just the right amount of nastiness by Francis Gercke, produce some of the more tense moments in the show. He is impressive as the mean spirited hunchback Cecil. His looks are mocking and menacing. His acting consistent with his words and deeds. His character is not someone you would want to cross or be on his enemies list. 

Rounding out the cast, Paul Eggington (in a stellar performance) is Richard, head of the acting company and Henry Garnet the English Jesuit priest on trial for taking confession from Robert Catesby, one of the leading plotters to kill the King. Garnet refuses to share tht confession with Cecil, who also was one of the interrogators. 

Shag visits him in jail and that’s when Garnet explains to Shag the logic of equivocation. These moments are touching and help define the significance of equivocation as described by Garnet: “Don’t answer the question they’re asking. If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be no honest answer. Answer the question beneath the question…” Make sense?

Caitie Grady and Robert Smyth
The two women in this all male cast include Caitie Grady as Judith Shag’s surviving daughter (her twin brother died) and Dianna Elledge, Cellist who plays Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s haunting and yet vivid original music.

Scenes between Judith and Shag bring a bit of sentimentality to the play when Shag confesses to Garnet; in a few of their meetings that he rarely speaks to his daughter since the death of his son her twin brother.

Secretly, Shag wishes it were she instead of he. Grady does the most with the material given her especially in her one big moment when her own soliloquy, talks of how she hates soliloquies and for that matter, plays.

Sean Fanning designed the multipurpose looking Old Globe Stage and prison surroundings and Nathan Pierson’s lighting design gives it all the shading needed to help with location and mood. Jeanne Reith’s period costumes are always creative and on target.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth directs with an eye toward expediency even as the play takes over two hours. It winds and intersects all too often. At times it  feels like we were being hit over the head in order to get a point across. However when all was said and done, Lamb’s Players Theatre is to be congratulated and praised for this impressive undertaking.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Nov. 20th

Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Phone: 619-437-6000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1142 Orange Ave. Coronado
Ticket Prices: $22.00-$68.00
Venue: Lamb’s Players Theatre

Photo: Ken Jacques

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