Review by Tulis McCall
Bamboozled. That’s what I am. I nearly needed a chart to follow this play. And as my friend John Randolph was wont to say, “You can’t blame the actors.”
This is an enormously ambitious play that nearly runs away with its own self. In 1606 William Shakespeare, known here as Shagspeare aka Shag (John Pankow) is offered a commission by the most evil Sir Robert Cecil (David Pittu) who is ancestor to a whole bunch of famous Brits. The deal is this: write a play about the Gunpowder Plot from the year before that was to have blown up King James and the House of Lords. It is to be an “official” version of the event based on a manuscript written by the King himself.
Initially Shag refuses, but bread being buttered on one side only, he soon sees the error of his ways. His theatre comrades, however, are another thing all together. Richard, Sharpe, Armin and Nate (Michael Countryman, David Furr, Remy Auberjonois and David Pittu) are in rehearsal for King Lear, which they find impossible not only to memorize but to speak period. It seems Shag is asking them to be human on stage, which is disquieting because they would all ….rather be characters. In the middle of this they are told of the commission and immediately realize that a play about current events – which has never been done before - will bring in crowds of theatre-goers. Their mortgages and families will be safe, if only Will can write it.
Actually the only person who has unbounded faith in Shag is he daughter Judith (Charlotte Parry) who moves in and out of the play alternately mute and effusive (to us only). She knows Shag the best and is rewarded with precious little in the way of fatherly love. Interest but no concern is all Shag is able to muster up. But it will be this relationship that centers and sustains our writer on his journey.
The journey in question brings him to that pesky research phase where he not only questions what happened to the dirt from the conspirators’ tunnel, but soon wants to question the prisoners themselves. As he delves deeper into the tale Shag discovers torture denied by the king, and more than one side of the story told by men trapped not only by their love of country but by their opinion of people, like Shag, whose dissent is silent. (Two hundred and fifty years later, Henry Thoreau would find himself in the same pickle when Civil Disobedience landed him in jail. The story goes that when Emerson visited him in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”)
Shag also meets Father Henry Garnet whose writing on the doctrine of equivocation has helped get him into jail. There was, he maintained, a way to speak an untruth that would not be condemned as a sin. If the King were hiding in your home and the enemy came to your door and asked if he were within – what would you do?
So the plot not only thickens, but it becomes lost for Shag. The play is scrapped and they decide to do Macbeth instead. This turns out to be a great choice because not only is it about a Scot, there are witches. King James likes witches.
All’s well that ends well, and this play eventually does, with Shakespeare in the loving arms of his daughter, the King pleased with the entertainment, and Robert Cecil predicting the future of human kind, despite Shakespeare’s best efforts.
And, as I said, all the actors did their best, which normally would be good enough. But between the contemporary/period costumes, the American accents throughout except for Ms. Parry who is a Brit and King James who needed to be audibly Scottish, the role reversals at the drop of a hat and the rehashing of a history about which I knew nothing – I was way lost. Hynes took a complicated script and added complication to it. I got knocked off the tailgate about 30 minutes in and by the time I recovered, this wagon train was long gone.
I know how Shag felt: he had a story he couldn’t write and I had one I couldn’t comprehend.
"Enjoyable entertainment that mostly glosses lightly over the many prickly issues it raises."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Smart, funny and literary."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"For all its imaginative theatrical elements, "Equivocation," .., can't quite shake its air of academic stuffiness."
Frank Scheck for New York Post
"All this historical hubbub may keep your mind struggling to keep up."
John Simon for Bloomberg
"A rambling, mixed bag of a play."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Rich and interesting theater."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...