Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Macbeth / Equivocation
Actors' Shakespeare Project
Review by Josh Garstka

Trinidad Ramkissoon, Jade Guerra, Alex Casillas
in Macbeth

Photo by Nile Scott Shots
Little is foul and much is fair in the Actors' Shakespeare Project's two-part season opener: a spooky Macbeth running in repertory with a contemporary play about its original premiere, Bill Cain's Equivocation. I caught the two shows on consecutive nights. Shakespeare's leanest, bloodiest tragedy pairs well with Cain's moral drama, a speculative account of the Scottish Play's creation against the backdrop of Guy Fawkes' failed Gunpowder Plot. Together, they tell a cautionary tale of two leaders and the lies they tell themselves to maintain their power.

This grim Macbeth, directed by Dawn M. Simmons, plays well in the gothic intimacy of the United Parish's sanctuary. The novelty is a new modern verse translation by Migdalia Cruz, recently commissioned for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Play On!" series. The festival's intent is to bring Shakespeare's plays into modern English with a diverse group of playwrights. Purists may disagree, but to my ears the translation is inoffensive. Cruz retains the play's meter and rhyme scheme; her updates are mostly on a word-by-word basis. Once we were underway, I didn't notice the changes much, and well-known bits (the king's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy) aren't changed at all.

It's a solemnly told Macbeth, until the violence bursts forth in an intense final battle (strikingly choreographed by Jesse Hinson). The witches are the ones who get to have fun, with Alex Casillas, Jade Guerra, and Trinidad Ramkissoon inhabiting the Weird Sisters with fiendish delight. Their "Double, double, toil and trouble" incantation has a hip-hop energy, as they chant to the pounding rhythm of their stomping feet. When these witches are off-stage, the foulness of the air lingers.

Macbeth's counterpart, Bill Cain's Equivocation, is more concerned with internal anguish, asking how we communicate what's true and invent what's not as artists, religious figures, and of course leaders of a nation. Directed by Christopher V. Edwards, this play is a lively and intriguing what-if, conjecturing that Shakespeare (or as he's called here, "Shag") was under political pressure to deliver propaganda that would appease the king. The play opens in England, 1606, when the priests responsible for the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament await their execution. King James I sends his right-hand man Robert Cecil to commission from Shag a play that rewrites the failed plot—a piece of political agitprop that will rally England behind its monarch.

Blood money in hand, Shag must decide if he should write the Gunpowder play. To become a mouthpiece for the government goes against his conscience—but turning down the king could lead to his death. As he interviews the alleged conspirators, Shag learns about the Jesuit concept of equivocation: a middle ground, where telling an incomplete truth may be necessary to save his soul and his neck.

Though Equivocation debuted a decade ago, it remains timely to watch leaders manufacture their own truths to serve their own end. Robert Cecil argues for the power of the state: the commissioned play could bring a divided nation together. "It was a nation founded on lies," Shag counters; we take for granted how our history has been written and rewritten. All interesting questions worth exploring, though Cain does belabor the same points about truth over two long acts. And I'm not convinced by the central conceit, that Macbeth would satisfy the king's need for a propaganda play when it's explicitly focused on a monarch going mad.

If you see both shows, you'll appreciate the hardworking actors who juggle multiple roles across the plays. Steven Barkhimer is his usual reliable presence as Shag, while handling Duncan and other minor Macbeth roles. I was impressed by Ed Hoopman, commanding both as noble Macduff and as a range of Equivocation parts: a novice actor, an imprisoned conspirator, and the jolly King James himself. And Maurice Parent gives us a Banquo haunted by Macbeth's growing evil one night, then the supercilious Robert Cecil the next—a darkly charismatic performance.

Nael Nacer is key to the success of both plays: a paternal Jesuit priest on trial in Cain's play, and a fully human Macbeth, an everyman slowly overtaken by his darkest impulses. We see the gregarious side of this king, an inspiring leader, soon to fall victim to his own murderous ambition. Opposite him is Paige Clark's younger and more ruthless Lady Macbeth. She's compelling in her early scenes, but her descent into madness doesn't register as strongly. Lady Macbeth's manic sleepwalking scene feels rushed. Supporting roles are also uneven; a few in the cast don't sound fully comfortable delivering Shakespeare-plus-Cruz's verse.

Still, there's much to enjoy in this double-header. If you're reeling from Macbeth's unrelenting darkness, its repertory partner offers some welcome comedy as Shag's troupe sends up the Bard in a highly abridged spoof. A few Equivocation actors even get to lampoon their own Macbeth characters. In their own way, from translation to parody, these two shows are a tribute to the lasting potency of Shakespeare's original verse.

Macbeth and Equivocation in repertory through November 11, 2018, by Actors' Shakespeare Project at the United Parish at 210 Harvard Ave., Brookline MA. Tickets are available at or by phone at 866-811-4111.

Macbeth Cast: Steven Barkhimer (Duncan/Porter); Alex Casillas (Ross); Paige Clark (Lady Macbeth); Jade Guerra (Lady Macduff); Ed Hoopman (Macduff); Nael Nacer (Macbeth); Maurice Parent (Banquo); Trinidad Ramkissoon (Lennox); Kai Tshikosi (Malcolm); Shanelle Villegas (Fleance).

Equivocation Cast: Steven Barkhimer (Shag); Kimberly Gaughan (Judith); Ed Hoopman (Sharpe, Thomas Wintour, King James); Nael Nacer (Richard Burbage, Henry Garnet); Maurice Parent (Nate, Robert Cecil); Kai Tshikosi (Armin, Sir Edward Coke, Robert Catesby).

Creative Team: Directors: Dawn M. Simmons (Macbeth), Christopher V. Edwards (Equivocation); Stage Managers: Lauren Burke, Marsha Smith; Set Designer: Jon Savage; Lighting Designer: Laura Hildebrand; Costume Designers: Rachel Padula-Shufelt (Macbeth), Jessica Pribble (Equivocation); Sound Designer: Elizabeth Cahill; Violence Designer: Jesse Hinson; Vocal Coach: Christine Hamel; Dramaturgs: Susanne McDonald (Macbeth), Caley Chase (Equivocation); Props Master: Joe Stallone.