Sharpe (Dane Oliver) and Nate (Alan Blumenfeld) in Equivocatoin. Photo by Ian Flanders.
By Ed Rampell
This summer, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the playwright and poet from Stratford-upon-Avon’s birth, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presented an all-Shakespeare-all-the-time repertory season at its leafy amphitheater perched in Topanga Canyon. (Usually WGTB varies its annual program with a mixture of Shakespearean, other classic and original plays.) The final work of the lot is not by, but rather about, the Bard -- or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Ted Barton, who’d previously portrayed the dramatist at WGTB’s July ceremony honoring William Shakespeare’s birth, plays a similarly named wordsmith, “Shagspeare,” in award winning palywriter Bill Cain’s Equivocation. This two-act drama with some humorous touches imagines a Shakespeare-like playwright receiving what is literally a command performance: A royal commission to write about Guy Fawkes and England’s 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a piece of agitprop that presents the government’s point of view, to be performed by the theatre company Shagspeare belongs to.
The Gunpowder Plot was an actual conspiracy to blow up King James and the Houses of Parliament that took place while Shakespeare was still alive. In any case, it’s beyond the scope of this review to go into details about the revolutionary scheme, but many readers will be familiar with Guy Fawkes masks, which depict a smirking face with a mustache upturned at each end and a goatee. These masks were popularized in the 2006 movie Vendetta and more recently have adorned the faces of protesters, from Occupy Wall Street to Anonymous, et al.
Shagspeare -- or “Shag”, as he is called for short (or perhaps in homage to the Tiki Pop artist of that name?) -- is, as stated, a member of a theatre company. Equivocation is at its thought provoking best when it ponders the role of theater and politics, plays and propaganda, or, to paraphrase Lenin, “the stage and revolution.” There is swordplay as well as wordplay, including a definition of what equivocation means that this reviewer had never considered before.
The work, which lasts about two and a half hours or so, is extremely complex, even convoluted, and this critic found it difficult to follow. This complexity is compounded by a play within a play, as at one point the troupe of thesps performs a truncated version of Macbeth. Although the cast consists of only six (small by Theatricum standards), it seems that at least some of the actors play multiple roles. If this reviewer understood that aspect of the production correctly, the playbill (say, were these publications named after Shakespeare? inquiring minds want to know) only listed one role per thesp, which only adds to the confusion. One can guess that all of the above reflects the fact that Bill Cain is, literally, a Jesuit priest.
In addition to probing the role of art vis-à-vis politics, nine years after the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot the play’s plot has interesting references to our 21st century world. There is the torture that has filled the stage and screen (think, for example, 24 and Jack Bauer) since the Cheney-Bush regime got into the euphemistically named “enhanced interrogation” biz at Guantanamo and “black sites” that straddle (and strangle) the globe. Indeed, this is the second WGTB production this summer wherein torture is a plot point.
Even more ominously, like Aeschylus’ Persians -- which is on the boards at WGTB’s neighbor down the long and winding road a bit at Malibu -- Equivocation also depicts a beheading. Both of these decapitations are occurring onstage just as ISIS maniacs are making videos (with “high production values”, as newscasters/propagandists for some reason rarely fail to point out) of the poor Western journalists and aid workers whose heads these terrorists are busy chopping off.
Furthermore, Equivocation was launched shortly before the referendum on independence for Scotland which, like the Gunpowder Plot, had the potential to greatly alter what is now call the United Kingdom. Even more eerie is the fact that as previously mentioned, Equivocation stages bits of Macbeth, which is nicknamed “the Scottish play.”
Barton is fine as the pantalooned Shag, as is Taylor Jackson Ross as his daughter. Judith, who is, alas, the ensemble’s only female member (unless you include a brief drag sequence -- after all, in Shakespeare’s day, all of the roles were depicted at the Globe by males). The interplay between father and daughter has something of a Shakespearean quality, a bit in the mode of King Lear (which is also on the repertory’s roster this season). Alan Blumenfeld is able as the ailing Nate and full of the romping pomposity this seasoned actor emanates in his more comic roles. As Sharpe, Dane Oliver steals many of the scenes he’s in as a preternaturally hammy, preening “ac-teur!” Mike Peebler deftly directs this complicated stew that this reviewer, fan as he is of the Theatricum, only wishes he could more unequivocally recommend to avid amphitheatergoers. Until next summer, this erstwhile critic bids his favorite theatre company adieu!
Equivocation runs through Oct. 4 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information: 310)-55-3723; www.Theatricum.com.