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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Delightfully Brilliant Equivocation Doesn't Know When to Stop
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Review by Bob Rendell

Rob Krakovski and James Michael Reilly
A bit of background. In 1605, English Catholics, who had been persecuted for refusing to accept the primacy of the Church of England, organized "The Gunpowder Plot" to assassinate King James I and the English parliamentary government by blowing up the Parliament Building. One morning Catholic activist Guy Fawkes was discovered in the basement of that building, leading to a search which uncovered 36 hidden barrels of gunpowder.

The conceit of Bill Cain's often delightfully entertaining and intellectually stimulating Equivocation is that in 1606 England's King James I prepared a highly fictionalized, self-aggrandizing account of the uncovering of the plot, and then commissioned and coerced—through the ministrations of his Chief Minister, the evil and dangerous Robert Cecil—Shakespeare to dramatize his account. Although there is never any doubt that the author is the Bard of Avon, his name here is Shagspeare, and he is usually addressed as Shag.

Shag cannot write a viable play. One reason is that it has no dramatic payoff as the plot is never carried out. Another is its likely falsity. Shag goes to great lengths to interview Thomas Winokur and Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, who are portrayed as perpetrators of the plot. Convinced that they are falsely accused, and that Robert Cecil is behind the plot so as to seize the monarchy for himself, Shag wants to write a play exonerating them. However, following such a course could be fatal to both Shag and his company. This leads Shag to seek to learn from Garnet how to apply his treatise "On Equivocation." The treatise teaches "How to speak truth in difficult times." The methods expressed are quite dazzling. In the case of Shag and the Gunpowder Plot, it will require convincing King James I to allow him to set aside writing that play, and to revise and substitute the, at the moment, discarded Macbeth.

Author Bill Cain throws everything into the mix—theatre company rivalries, satiric accounts of Shakespearean plays, the responsibility of the artist to his audience, and the reconciliation of Shag with his daughter whom he has neither loved nor appreciated, endless plot twists and reversals—which are at times tedious as they are strung out over close to three hours.

Director Paul Mullins has triumphed by providing a lively, clean, and reasonably clear production of a breakneck inherently confusing concept. The five man ensemble each play one member of Shag's company and they all play multiple additional roles in the play, both as characters in Shag's play and as their actual selves. At times, they are required to switch roles from one sentence to the next.

Equivocation is written in present day American vernacular English, and the actors appropriately speak in a contemporary manner. The moments needed to adjust to the modern vernacular are more than compensated for by the accessibility which it adds. James Michael Reilly (Shag), Dominic Comperatore, Matthew Stucky, Rob Krakovski, and Kevin Isola clearly delineate and bring appropriate individual colors to each of their roles. Therese Barbaro wins our sympathy in the role of Shag's daughter.

Equivocation was originally produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009 and the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2010. Despite its unwieldiness, it is an unusually good play, and an excellent selection for Shakespeare Theatre audiences.

Equivocation continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 7:30 pm / Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm / Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2 pm) through October 4, 2015, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online:

Equivocation by Bill Cain; directed by Paul Mullins
Shag……….James Michael Reilly
Nate………Dominic Comperatore
Sharpe…………..Matthew Stucky
Richard……………Rob Krakovski

Photo: Jerry Dalia

- Bob Rendell

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