Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Equivocation is set in 1605 London, with King James having succeeded Elizabeth I, and William Shagspeare (sic Shakespeare) and his company, The King's Men, the premier creators of theatrical fare for both royalty and the public writ large. Shag (as his friends call him) has a talent for manipulating history and societal perceptions, telling stories that may bear truth, yet molding the truth for theatrical effect. After all, he gave Richard III a hump, made the Jewish money-lender Shylock a sympathetic character while still adhering to commonly held anti-Semitic prejudices. Robert Cecil, the powerful Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State, bestows a commission from the King upon Shagspeare: to write a play telling the story of the Powder Plot, aimed at blowing up Parliament and killing the king. But this is not a history tale, told from a comfortable distance, but current event, with those accused of complicity still awaiting trial. Cecil wants the play in one week. He has conveniently written the entire story, all Shagspeare needs to do is add "he enters, he exits, how hard can that be?"
Shag realizes that Cecil wants a propaganda piece, one that condemns the accused and quickly leaves the Powder Plot behind. He resists the commission, but the cooperatively run troupe votes to accept it, and Shag gets to work. But the play does not work. It tells of a thwarted plot, with no big explosion nor climax to satisfy an audience. Shag becomes inspired to dig more deeply into questions raised by Cecil's account of the Powder Plotsuch as, if the conspirators dug a long tunnel under parliament, what became of the extracted dirt? Where did these accused acquire such massive amounts of explosives? He gains permission to interview one of the accused, Tom Wintour, and is moved by Tom's testimony seeing in him something of his own son, Hamnet, who died in childhood. Beginning to realize the scope of the truth, Shag interviews the Jesuit equivocator Henry Garnet, begging to be taught how to equivocate so that he can be truthful without destroying himself.
This fairly lengthy bit of exposition does not begin to reveal the complexity of Equivocation, which, also includes a tortured relationship between Shag and his daughter Judith, who was Hamnet's twin sister and who disdains the theater even as she helps her father maintain it; relationships among the Kings' Players; Cecil's schemes to hang on to his power at the heel of distracted young King James; and an imagined trial of the Powder Plot defendants. Some of these facets align closely with historical record, while others appear to be Cain's invention. The play stretches beyond its capacity to fully deliver satisfactory resolutions to all of its tangents, yet so much of it works, with hearty servings of historical, intellectual and emotional truth, that one would be ungrateful to demand more.
Walking Shadow has brought their A game to this production, with stellar performances by all six cast members. Damon C. Mentzer is exceptional as Shag exhibiting a range of emotions from the exhilaration of theatrical success, to the mournful remembrance of his lost son, to outrage at the machinations of the power elite, to heartbreaking aloofness toward his daughter Judith. As Judith, Eva Gemlo is a self-possessed presence, who knows herself and her place in life full well, accepting with just a trace of bitterness, her poorly dealt hand.
The other four cast members play multiple roles, each a member of the Kings Players and taking on parts as they enact scenes from Lear, Macbeth, and the stillborn Power Plot play as well as other roles.
John Heimbuch, Walking Shadow's co-artistic director, stepped into the cast just days before the production opened and was onbook (barely) at the performance I attended. Heimbuch was exceptional in two key parts, as Richard Burbage, Shag's best friend and leading man among the King's Men, and as Henry Garnet, the serene priest who views equivocation as a form of service.
Peter Simmons is splendidly imperious and pitiless as Lord Robert Cecil, who can play the part of simpering sycophant his King expects of him. As Peter Sharpe, the newest member of the Kings Men, Mitch Ross displays a full measure of the vanity and ambition his occupation requires, but Ross gives equally strong portrayals of the heroically ravaged Tom Wintour and light-headed King James. Edwin Stout has a bit less heavy lifting to do as Robert Armin, a member of the King's Men known for playing the comic roles in Shagspeare's or Shakespeare'swork, but he is a wonderfully sputtering prosecutor in an imagined scene where he cross examines Henry Garnet, only to have Garnet turn the tables on him through the art of "equivocation."
With scenes in Equivocation sometimes shifting in split-second manner from the Kings Men rehearsal of a play to discourse among the Kings Men themselves to the prisons holding the accused conspirators to Lord Cecil's chambers, director Amy Rummenie has her work cut out for her, and she is fully up to the challenge. For a show with so many levels of action and narrative, the work comes across with great clarity. The thorny questions it raises are presented as pivotal moments in the lives of its characters, there for us to take adopt as our own, but without every resting to announce "here is a message."
The show is mounted on the intimate stage of Gremlin Theatre, whose small space is augmented with strong design work on all fronts. A. Emily Heaney designed exceptionally rendered costumes that ring true to their era, and the handsome set designed by Steve Kath places images of a royal chamber as the backdrop for the darker business that takes place. Brooding atmospheric underscoring and transitional music was composed by sound designer Thomas Speltz. Keely Wolter's coaching of the Elizabethan accents called for result in apt sounding dialogue that never calls attention to itself. The sword play and fisticuffs are well choreographed, with Annie Enneking credited as "Violence Consultant", a title that is new to me. It should be noted that there is some graphic violence, including a simulated beheading. Though none of it is gratuitous, those who are squeamish may want to turn aside.
At three hours running time, Equivocation is a long play that might have benefitted from some trimming in places. Nonetheless, it is brimming with ideas, with windows into history and suppositions about the questions history has never answered. With a totally winning staging by Walking Shadow, this is a work for serious theatergoers to relish.
Equivocation, a production of Walking Shadow Theatre Company, continues through June 24, 2018 at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: General admission - $28.00, seniors and Fringe button holders - $25.00, under 30, pay half your age for any performance. For tickets go to gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.
Writer: Bill Cain; Director: Amy Rummenie; Set Design and Technical Director: Steve Kath; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Lighting Design: Tony Stoeri; Composer and Sound Design: Thomas Speltz; Props Design: Robert "Bobbie" Smith; Accent Coach: Keely Wolter; Violence Consultant: Annie Enneking: Fight Captain: Peter Simmons; Recorded Cello: Cory Grossman; Stage Manager: Topaz Cooks; Assistant Stage Manager: Kalena Johnson; Assistant Lighting Designer: Keelia Wood.
Cast: Eva Gemlo (Judith), John Heimbuch (Richard and others), Damon C. Mentzer (Shag), Mitch Ross (Sharpe and others), Peter Simmons (Cecil and others), Edwin Stout (Armin and others).