The art and artifice of DRC’s Equivocation
SHAGSPEARE AND FRIENDS Clockwise from top left: Corey Gagne, Christopher Holt, Matt Delamater,
Ian Carlsen, and Peter Brown. Most play multiple roles.
Playwright William Shagspeare (a laconic, finely measured Peter Brown) and his troupe of thespians have a “cooperative venture” going on. Everyone owns shares in the company, everyone has a vote, and, with the patronage of the King, they’ve made a good living performing a slew of inoffensive plays about twins and moribund rulers. But now the King’s secretary, Robert Cecil (Corey Gagne, with cool, arrogant authority), has commissioned Shag to write a work of theatrical propaganda about the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which Jesuits were supposedly thwarted from their scheme to blow up Parliament. Cecil wants to demonize the Catholics — and King James (an almost perversely elfin Ian Carlsen) just wants witches! — but Shag sees holes in the story. His considerations about whether and how to tell the truth drive Bill Cain’s remarkable Equivocation, a gripping and dizzyingly erudite work of historical fiction. Keith Powell Beyland and Brown co-direct a dazzling production, with a double- and triple-cast ensemble of some of Portland’s most arresting actors.
Shag’s core players — handsome, insecure young Sharpe (Carlsen), temperamental aging lead Richard (Christopher Holt), dashing Armin (Matt Delamater), and workmanlike Nate (Gagne again) — already have problems. Sharpe is sick of being “naked and covered in shit” in Shag’s new King Lear; Richard is at jealous odds with Sharpe; and the troupe quarrels about what they should or shouldn’t risk performing for the King. Meanwhile, Shag has been suppressing grief for his dead son and neglecting the boy’s surviving twin, the no-bullshit, oft-editorializing Judith (Carrie Bell-Hoerth, appealingly wry). But Shag closes in on truths both political and personal as he interviews the co-conspirators, including the fiery Tom Wintour (Carlsen), and Father Garnet (Holt), Jesuit author of On Equivocation, who schools Shag in “how to speak the truth in difficult times.”
As befits a play suffused in both plays and politics, the show’s theater-within-theater tropes are myriad and compelling executed. Costume racks and a Foley table (gamely manned by Chris Fitze) are in full sight, as are costume-changes between lavish period garb (Travis M. Grant’s gorgeous design revels in red velvet and studded leather) and off-duty actors who watch from the wings. The narrative framework shifts fluidly between Shag’s encounters and his dramatic retelling of them, and actors slip in and out of numerous roles with skill and increasing audaciousness: As the players (accompanied now by Jesse Leighton, in drag) perform the play that Shag finally delivers (the name of which I won’t spoil), virtuoso Carlsen jumps out and in of a throne playing now actor Sharpe, now speed-freaky, giggling King James. (Carlsen is so disarmingly convincing that once, watching his Sharpe, I actually looked back to the throne to see James’ reaction.)