Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An Unequivocal Success at Redwood Curtain

David Hamilton and Ambar Cuevas at Redwood Curtain
It is 1606 and the chief minister to the new English King (James I) commissions the most popular playwright of the day to write a play about the notorious Gunpowder Plot that sought to blow up the Parliament building while the king and his family were there. That playwright is William “Shagspeare”--one of several ways Shakespeare’s name was spelled by his contemporaries. The English weren’t big on consistent spelling at the time.

 So begins Equivocation, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka. It is a comedy and a political whodunit, told in contemporary language by a playwright who also wrote an episode of TV’s political potboiler “House of Cards,” but it's set in the early 17th century: Shakespeare In Love meets All the President’s Men.

Shakespeare’s sleuthing begins with a motive unknown to Woodward and Bernstein, or even Sherlock Holmes. He’s worried that the official version of events just won’t make a good play. For instance, the gentlemen conspirators were supposed to have dug a tunnel. How could they? It needed supports, and pumps to keep the river out. And what did they do with the dirt? “There will be 700 penny-a-place standees at every performance, all of whom make their living with their hands,” Shakespeare says. “And if there’s anything these groundlings will want to know about, it’s the dirt.”

 But the bigger dramatic problem is that the plot was foiled, so the explosion didn’t happen. What was good for the King is bad for Shakespeare, because the play has no ending.

 The actors of the company are very funny as they grapple with these problems (as well as Shakespeare’s latest confusing play about a crazy King Lear. “If we could get through his comedies-don’t-have-to-be-funny period,” lead actor Richard Burbage reassures the company, “we can get through whatever this is.”)

 In search of theatrical reality Shakespeare speaks with two of the alleged conspirators, and the play moves into the darkness of the time: political intrigue involving religion and the state, with the King’s chief minister and spymaster, Robert Cecil at its center. Shakespeare begins to wonder who profits from the Gunpowder Plot, and why.

 Equivocation is by Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest and writer who started a Shakespeare company in Boston. Another Jesuit (Henry Garnet) features prominently in the story, especially in regard to the concept of “equivocation” he championed: telling the truth, but indirectly. The moral questions raised by equivocation turn out to have significance as well for Shakespeare (who wants to "tell the truth but not get caught at it")  and his plays.

 Eventually Shakespeare completes a play, though not exactly the one commissioned, and it is the occasion for more mesmerizing action, including as a sword fight. Prior knowledge of Shakespeare and these times aren’t required, but they’ll add to the appreciation.

 Even more than usual for Redwood Curtain, the acting is excellent. This time the clarity and conviction of the acting are elevated as the actors meet the challenges of a witty, theatrical and multi-layered script. They respond with performances that rank among their best, at least in my experience.

 David Hamilton plays Shakespeare through the moods of his journey, revealing his humanity. Gary Sommers as Burbage and others, especially the Jesuit Garnet, is precise and evocative. James Hitchcock navigates both the wily Robert Cecil and Nate, the most grounded of the players, with economy and force.  Dimitry Tokarsky likewise inhabits his roles with an assurance we share. As both Richard Sharpe (the youngest player) and King James, Cody Miranda has a startling moment playing a scene between the two. With his posture and his eyes, he conveys the cruelty hidden in the cocksure King.

 The play also involves the central role of family, especially the relationship of Shakespeare and his daughter, Judith, whose cynical skepticism is eventually transformed. Ambar Cuevas plays all those colors well, but her performance in the closing scene is exceptionally moving.

 The other elements of this production are equally admirable: the elegant and spacious set by Ray Gutierrez, dramatic lighting by Michael Burkhart, pleasing costumes by Jenneveve Hood, among important others. Director Catherine L. Brown knits all these elements together into a convincing and entertaining world. Though not perfect in preview, this show is an unequivocal success.

This is an unusually rich and thematically ambitious play, and one that takes chances.  After all, it is a play about a play that doesn't get written about an event that doesn't take place. It even violates Shakespeare's rules (histories end in battle, comedies in marriage, tragedies in death): it is a history and a comedy that ends in death.

 To mention more about it would involve too much space and too many spoilers for an opening review, so I’ll suggest some of its textures in the notes below, especially for those who see it. But playgoers should be prepared for some enacted and mostly suggested violence, including torture. (It’s no coincidence that this play was written during the Bush administration.)

 Craig Benson is the fight choreographer, Brandi Lacy the dialect coach, and various effects are engineered by Jared Sorenson, Jillian Park and Hanah Toyoda. Christopher Joe is sound designer, Shea King assistant director and dramaturg. Equivocation is on stage at Redwood Curtain weekends through September 27. 443-7688,

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