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Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Equivocation: Gun Powder, Treason, and One Very Dense Plot
Arden Theatre Company
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Cameron's review of Antigone

Dan Hodge as Nate, Sean Lally, Anthony Lawton, and Campbell O'Hare
Photo by Mark Garvin
At its heart, Bill Cain's Equivocation is a clever work of historical fiction. William Shagspeare (known here as Shagspeare or just Shag to his friends) is commissioned by an old enemy, the king's man Sir Robert Cecil, to write a play about the recently foiled assassination attempt known as the Gunpowder Plot. When Shag and his troop of actors—who are also his business partners and dearest friends—have trouble turning the straightforward story into an interesting play they seek out details of the attempted treason. The hunt for an interesting plot line becomes a dangerous search for truth. Shag discovers (or is he purposely shown?) that much of the official story is merely propaganda designed to justify anti-Catholic legislation. The troop must find a way to tell the story King James I is paying to hear without betraying the truth, even as the accused conspirators are tortured, tried and executed in the town square.

The cast of six plays the acting troop (as themselves and as various famous Shakespearean characters) as well as the principles of the Gunpowder Plot. The effect is excellent and, under Terrence Nolen's direction, the double and triple casting adds a layer of tension and drama to the play without ever becoming confusing. Sean Lally gives a stand-out performance as Sharpe, Tom Wintour, and King James, making the audience laugh out loud one moment and sending chills up our spines in the next. Campbell O'Hare and Ian Merrill Peakes are also tremendous assets to the production.

The play thoughtfully mixes scenes and speeches from Shakespeare's great works (King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth to name just a few) with the troop's early attempts at staging different versions of the gunpowder plot and the action of the ongoing historical thriller. David P. Gordon's simple yet infinitely pliable set design and Solomon Weisbard's creative lighting allow all the worlds of the story come to life. There are witty soliloquies directed out to the audience, emotional dialogues, and violent confrontations. The lines between playwright, actor, and audience are blurred and then broken as the many layers of the play unfold.

If it sounds like there's a lot going on here, know that I have left out much action and many of the themes that run through Equivocation. After offering a unique historical reassessment of the famous Gunpowder Plot and a full rendering of the great playwright himself, Cain fleshes out Shagspeare's family situation and history, the motivation behind at least six of his great works, the complex relationships within the acting troop, as well as discussing the very nature of theater, politics and truth. Unfortunately, the Arden's production becomes muddled and plodding in its attempt to take on Cain's wildly ambitious work. It is unclear if Robert Cecil (Dan Hodge) is a master manipulator or a bumbling sycophant. Hodge lurches disoriented through a gut-wrenching scene in the second act, but is insufficiently sinister as the inquisitor using intimidation and torture to achieve his political ends.

Eric Hissom quietly conjures an insecure yet idealistic William Shagspeare, but spends too much time in a state of brooding angst. Even prince Hamlet had moments of intense anger and fear, but Hissom seems oddly unintimidated in the face of medieval torture and grotesque executions. In fact, the whole play seems to suffer from a sense of perpetual frustration, the humorous banter between the players is weighed down by a sense of conflict, and even the most gruesome murders do not feel adequately dark and threatening. The result is a very interesting but often slow moving two hours and forty five minutes. If you love history or Shakespeare Equivocation is still well worth your time.

Equivocation runs through December 13, 2015, at Arden Theatre Company on the Arden's Arcadia Stage at 40 N. 2nd Street in Philadelphia. For tickets call the box office at 215-922-1122 or visit

Eric Hissom: Shag
Dan Hodge: Nate
Sean Lally: Sharpe
Tony Lawton: Armin
Campbell O'Hare: Judith
Ian Merrill-Peakes: Richard

Director: Terrence J. Nolen
Fight Director: Ian Rose
Scenic Designer: David Gordon
Costume Designer: Rosemarie McKelvey
Lighting Designer: Solomon Weisbard
Sound Designer/Composer: Jorge Cousineau

-- Rebecca Rendell

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