Theater, as we are reminded in Bill Cain’s “Equivocation,” is a “community venture” where the players on stage “hold up a mirror” to the truths and ills and joys and conflicts of human experience. What audiences do, who they become, after looking in that mirror is up to them.
In its season opener, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” AthensWest held up a mirror reminding audiences of the simple sweetness of being alive, of the treasure that is every moment shared with loved ones. “Equivocation,” the theater’s latest production, brilliantly reflects a more fraught and complicated subject: whether and how to tell the truth in difficult times.
The play centers on the following hypothetical premise: England’s King James I, desperate to be seen as more than the Scottish usurper put on the throne by a noble with a nose for clever underhandedness, taps popular playwright William Shakespeare to write a play about what “really” happened in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 — a foiled attempt to blow up the king and parliament in an effort to end the persecution of Catholics. At first flattered by the king’s commission, jauntily sharing the news with the actors in his theater company, Shakespeare and his troupe quickly realize there is no way they can write the King’s play. For one thing, it’s boring. You can’t write an exciting play about something that didn’t end up happening. Also, and most importantly, the play is a lie and cheapens Shakespeare’s role from playwright to mere propagandist. To do or not do the King’s play, and why and how, becomes the driving conflict within both Shakespeare and his theater troupe. Will they suck it up and do the play as requested, holding their noses at their lack of artistic integrity? Will they openly rebel and produce a play that ridicules the king? Or will they find some clever approach that is even more true? I won’t spoil it for you, as part of the enjoyment of “Equivocation” is witnessing Shakespeare’s teeter-tottering between ethical extremes until he finds his way.
Sounds heavy, doesn’t it? There’s even some torture and betrayal, plus a little being haunted by regrets and failures. There’s also some fear of personal ruin and death. Not to mention the paranoid acceptance that one may be living under an incompetent tyrant.
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But in the deft hands of director Jerre Dye and an astounding acting ensemble packed with training and talent, it’s hilarious. And fun. And most importantly, full of life, of swift turns of character or understanding, of roles that change in an instant. It makes fun of itself, of the theater, of writers and actors, of Shakespeare himself. Poised in this framework of their own fallibility, the players’ plights are even more convincing and relatable.
Matt Johnson excels at this in his role of Shakespeare, who is not yet a legend, but a marginally popular script doctor with a penchant for adapting stories to suit every audience. Johnson strikes a charming balance between conveying the gravitas of Shakespeare’s sense of purpose as an artist (he even thinks he can absolve sins) with the levity of self-deprecation.
Johnson plays the lead, but as may have been true in Shakespeare’s own time, his company of players is what brings his message home.
Scenes in which the company is acting out potential drafts of the play, interweaving real life events with imagined ones, are some of the play’s most fetching moments. Dye’s blocking and movement feels like a fierce, pounding, choreographed dance that weaves in and out of the play’s narrative flow.
It helps that Dye’s ensemble actors are masters of movement as individuals. Shayne Brakefield’s role-switching between the slimey Robert Cecil and the jovial player Nate is one of many examples of the ensemble’s artistic precision. Samuel Lockridge’s Sharpe combines the over eagerness of a young man with something to prove with the elegant swagger of a dancer at the top of his game. Eva Gil as Shakespeare's daughter Judith is a deadpan contrast to her excitable father, but it is her cool and clever head that prevails in the end. Cody Taylor’s stylized performance in various roles harkens to his training in the commedia dell’arte style. And Anthony Haigh brings a paternal gravitas to his role as both priest and player, convincing us, rightly I believe, that the theater is a kind of “perfect civic church,” a place where we may gather to ask questions, receive sacraments, perhaps even find illumination together, in the dark.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
What: AthensWest Theatre Co. production of Bill Cain’s play.
When: 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. through Feb. 25
Where: Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $27.50 general public, $22.50 students, senior adults, active duty military