Notwithstanding the gorgeous production of Death and the King’s Horseman starring Derrick Lee Weeden, the hugely entertaining Music Man starring Michel Elich, the side-splittingly funny Servant of Two Masters, and a wonderfully inventive production of All’s Well That Ends Well that actually made me, at least for two hours, actually like that ornery problem play, when friends visiting Ashland asked me last summer which plays to take in at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, my answer was invariably, “see Equivocation first.” And this from a playgoer notorious, when limited by time or pecuniary considerations, for choosing yet another Othello production over some new play, however loud the general buzz.
And the general buzz for the world premiere production of Equivocation, written by Bill Cain and directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, was very loud indeed.
With a cast of six playing an exhausting number of multiple parts, led by Anthony Heald as Shag (Shakespeare), it was a marvelous production that confirmed me in a growing suspicion that Bill Rauch has a nearly pitch-perfect theatrical sense. Productions need to be intelligent, to be sure, and Rauch is certainly that; but he’s also one of the too-few directors who understands that the worst sin in theatre, at least from the audience’s standpoint, is to be boring. Especially at live theatre prices. I’ve yet to see Rauch deliver a ho-hum show, and this one was edge-of-your-seat stuff.
My favorite moments in Equivocation: just about any of them with Jonathan Haugen as Robert Cecil — would I love to see him do a Richard III! Then there’s John Tuft’s “wee Jamie of Scotland”, and the riveting what-if concoctions featuring Gregory Linington as a Black Legend caricature of Fr. Henry Garnet-by-way-of-Macbeth. (“How now, you secret, black and midnight priest!) Delicious, that.
As for the play itself, Equivocation is intriguing and often brilliant, with sparkling, funny dialogue. It is flawed in my view, however, by the playwright’s attempt to shoehorn some gender-equality, by way of a subplot involving Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, into what is otherwise a rip-roaring guy-thriller about the Gunpowder Plot as it might have been staged by the Bard at the command of Robert Cecil. There was, moreover, one moment, in many ways the thematic “climax” of the show, which I’m afraid I simply could not buy, though I laughed anyway: the moment where Shag, wondering how the hell he can possibly tell the truth about the Gunpowder Plot without getting himself hung, drawn and quartered, , comes to Fr. Garnet in prison and begs him to teach him how to “tell the truth in difficult times”; i.e., how to “equivocate”.
Say, what? Since when did the Maestro need remedial assistance on talking out both sides of his mouth…on taking away with his right hand what he’s just given you with his left? (See the paragraph below beginning with, “As for the little produced Henry VIII…)
Anyway, flawed or no, I saw Equivocation three times, met several people who had seen it five times, and there’s been Pulitzer Prize buzz about it to boot, so who am I to quibble?
Besides, in the end Equivocation also re-launched my longstanding interest in the “Catholic Shakespeare” question, a subject which has been getting more and more scholarly attention of late. (Go here for an interview I did a few years back with Claire Asquith, who wrote a popular book on the subject, Shadowplay.)
But while we’re on the subject of the Catholic Thing and the Gunpowder Plot, in a canny bit of season scheduling, Macbeth and Henry VIII were also on the 2009 OSF roster. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Macbeth production, to be perfectly frank. A friend of mine opined that the Macbeths (Peter Macon & Robin Goodrin Nordli) seemed to be in a different production than the rest of the cast, and I personally preferred the half with Kevin Kenerly as Macduff and Rex Young as Banquo. I did, however, adore Macon’s breezy turn as the Duke in Much Ado About Nothing and Nordli’s over-the-top bawdy in Don Quixote, starring Armando Duran in one of his loveliest OSF roles.
As for the rarely staged Henry VIII, though a weak play by Shakepsearean standards, the OSF production was well worth seeing, particularly for the gorgeous costumes and primo performances by Vilma Silva as Katherine, Anthony Heald as Wolsey, and Michael Elich as the doomed Buckingham. The show also lended fascinating context to Equivocation, not only as historical background to the origin of the Protestant Reformation in England, but as a perfect example of Shakespeare’s own genius for “equivocation” — i.e., his neck-saving propensity for monarchical arse-kissing counterpointed by elusive and subversive double meanings…and the occasional politically incorrect zinger, such as the following exchange in Act II between the Chamberlain and Suffolk on the subject of the King’s marital melancholy:
It seems the marriage with his brother’s wife
Has crept too near his conscience.
No, his conscience
Has crept too near another lady.
Ouch. English historian David Starkey, who is an atheist, by the way, put it this way:
The old high-Protestant English view, that Henry was operating out of high moral motives and had profound high moral scruples about his first marriage, is manifest nonsense. He decides to marry Anne first and then, afterwards, decides to develop moral scruples like a bad case of German measles.
To top it all off, our Bard makes Catholic Queen Katherine the heroine and martyr of the play — how he got by with that in James I’s England, it would be interesting to know.
A wonderful season. Can’t wait for February, 2010!