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September 7, 2014:

Equivocation reviewed by Rob Stevens

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines equivocate as “to use unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone”. There is a lot of equivocating by the characters in playwright Bill Cain’s historic political thriller Equivocation on stage at the outdoor Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon. It’s a fascinating take on one of the most legendary events in English history—The Gunpowder Plot of 1605. For those unfamiliar with English history, on November 5, 1605 Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords. Several other wealthy and influential Catholics were arrested and accused of plotting to blow up the ceremonial opening of Parliament, killing Protestant King James I, his family and most of the hierarchy of the English government. The event is still celebrated throughout England today with bonfires and fireworks.

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But was there actually a Jesuit-led plot or was it all a government conspiracy to get the Catholic faith, marginalized since Henry VIII split with Rome over his many divorces, banned completely in England. Sir Robert Cecil, minister to Queen Elizabeth I and the man most responsible for placing her nephew, the Scottish King James VI, on the English throne after her death, hated the Catholics and was a master of intrigue. Cecil is a major player in Cain’s play, commissioning the most popular writer of the times, William Shakespeare, to write a play based on the official King’s Book version of the events. It’s an offer Shakespeare can’t refuse but he fears he will lose his soul if he writes a fabrication or else lose his head if he writes the truth. His loyal troupe of players at the Globe Theatre support him but also caution him.

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Shakespeare demands to speak to the imprisoned plotters to get their side of the story and is generously granted permission by Cecil. Equivocation rules the day as both sides of the story are revealed. It’s a captivating take on history as well as a behind the scenes look at a writer’s dilemma—tell the truth or make it up. Cain’s writing engrosses the audience and uses familiar scenes and lines from Shakespeare’s plays, most especially from the Scottish Play, otherwise known as Macbeth, which was first performed shortly after the Gunpowder Plot.

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Mike Peebler’s deft direction lets the playwright’s words and the talented cast of six enchant and enthrall the audience. The cast does exemplary work, many playing multiple roles, both in the unraveling mystery as well as scenes from Shakespeare’s play. Ted Barton heads the sextette as Shakespeare, puzzling over the vagaries of his life and craft. Alan Blumenfeld steals his scenes as the devilishly clever Cecil as well as Globe member Nate. Dane Oliver displays real diversity playing the fun-loving King James, the tortured plotter Thomas Wintour and the egotistical young actor Sharpe among other roles. Franc Ross is stalwart as Richard, the Globe’s manager and lead actor, as well as the imprisoned Jesuit superior who is a true master of equivocation. Strong support is added by Taylor Jackson Ross as Shakespeare’s daughter Judith and Paul Turbiak in various roles.

Ben Kahookele’s costumes, Zach Moore’s lighting as well as the sound design by Ian Flanders & Christopher W. Jones all add to the excellence of this production. No equivocating here–Equivocation really is a “don’t miss it” event.

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga. Fridays only except for closing night October 4. 310-455-3723 or www.theatricum.com

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