By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
As a certain music critic of yore used to lament in regard to Italianate tenors, “I wish I had a dictionary of superlatives with which to describe his voice.”
Currently there is much in San Diego theaters on which to rain praise, what with the double bill of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II” playing through Nov. 6 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, and now, the latest, equally-challenging and exquisite, the regional theater premiere of Bill Cain’s hilarious and brainy 2009 ode to Shakespeare, theater and love, “Equivocation,” at Lamb’s Players Theatre through Nov. 20.
In addition to being a playwright, screenwriter and teacher, Cain is a Jesuit priest, and therefore eminently qualified to write this gnarly, brilliantly constructed work about the Jesuit Gunpowder Plot of 1605. That’s when a bunch of rebels plotted to blow up the House of Parliament — and with it the protestant King James I, his family and his supporters — thereby restoring a Catholic king to the throne.
Someone ratted out the conspirators before they could light the fuse. All were captured, convicted, hanged, and drawn and quartered the following year. It is during this period that a man named William Shagspear, here called “Shag,” is commissioned by King James’s prime minister, Robert Cecil, to write a play about the plot, its foiling and the torture of the plotters. King James himself has written the “treatment” from which Shag is expected to write the play.
“We don’t do current events,” Shag (Robert Smyth) tells Cecil (Francis Gercke). “We do true histories of the past.”
After Shag takes the assignment and the purse that goes with it, he insists on talking with the plotters to learn the truth and simultaneously goes into rehearsal with his troupe, the King’s Men. The king’s play unfolds before us, along with rehearsals for Shag’s new play, “Macbeth,” and bits of “Hamlet” and “King Lear.”
Troupe members portray multiple roles, themselves, characters in Shag’s plays, the plotters and the royals.
Employing age-old theatrical devices, bits and pieces of Jeanne Reith’s clever period-mixed costumes and the amazing acumen and versatility of her actors, director Deborah Gilmour Smyth assists onlookers’ discernment of the rapidly unfolding and intertwined plotlines, as Shag discovers that King James’ version of the truth differs vastly from what he is learning. The result is a paean to Shagspear and a life in the theater. And, I might add, a delight to Shakespeare devotees. I wept at the end, partly because I was moved and partly because Cain’s heady romp had concluded.
In addition to Shag (quietly dazzling Robert Smyth) and Nate (the multi-talented Gercke), there are three additional troupe members, Sharpe (poignant Ross Hellwig), Richard (solid Paul Eggington) and Armin (exceptionally versatile Brian Mackey). Each is fully utilized. All save Smyth play numerous roles. The play’s other character is Shag’s daughter, Judith (wondrously affecting Caitie Grady), twin of his late, lamented son, Hamnet. Judith acts as the troupe’s laundress, loves her father and endures much neglect just to be near him. Their relationship is strained because she is so like her twin that Shag can barely tolerate having her around.
Deborah Gilmour Smyth — one of San Diego’s great treasures, whose casting and direction are jewel-like — acts as sound designer as well and has written a lovely score for unaccompanied cello (played by Diana Elledge) to support the action. This all takes place upon Sean Fanning’s set, representative of the bare bones, Elizabethan-style stage of the original Globe Theatre, with ornate golden columns — that support the rough hewn of the over above, the under, and the heavens — and staircases on both sides. Nathan Peirson is lighting designer and Jordan Miller is fight director.
When “Equivocation” is at the height of meandering in search of a play, it is borderline mind numbing, its torture and executions ghastly; and yet, the writing (in the American vernacular), the acting and the love story at the play’s core make it transcendent. It is absolutely chockfull of wit, wisdom and timeliness, and is a tribute to Lamb’s, its leaders, and its company, all fully utilized in service to excellence and moral and intellectual courage.
This is must-see theater, especially now.