Arena Stage opens it’s second play of the season, Equivocation, set in 1606 London, at the rehearsal theatre space for “Shagspeare’s” theatre company (we, of course, know the reference to “Shakespeare”, but this is fiction). On the surface, Equivocation, is about a fictitious account of King James’ secretary of state, Rober Cecil, commissioning Shagspeare to write a script about the Gunpowder Plot from the year before. Yet, this is a complicated script, which weaves in many other perspectives. This play is about how we construct history. It about how someone positions himself (Cecil and Shagspeare) for power, status, wealth, and posterity. It is about telling the truth, while evading dire consequences. It is about personal identity, integrity, and authenticity, when confronted with practicality. It is about restoring lost relationships between a father and his twin children, one deceased and the other living, but “dead” to him. So, what is Equivocation about? It is about how we tell stories, and how these stories become our history, our position, our identity, our relationship. Sounds like blogging to me.
A believable story starts with some facts. Equivocation contains historical events (the Gunpowder Plot, Shakespeare’s contemporary plays of 1604 – 1606, Othello, Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Macbeth), and characters (Shakespeare’s acting company, King James, Robert Cecil, Gunpowder Plot conspirators, Father Robert Catesby). A believable fictitious account needs a degree of skepticism about the offical history (such as the Di Vinci Code) to create suspense. Equivocation contains plenty of twists in the facts that makes us wondering what really was going on, and what do we really know. A believable story needs a good title which captures the essence of the play but draws audience in with it’s concept.
As we prepared for the theatre, I wondered what does “equivocation” mean. The dictionary gives the vague answer of “deliberately ambiguous”. I would be in the dark until I read the Dramaturg’s Notebook in the program, “Attempting to tell the truth in difficult times.” Mid-way through the play, the character Father Robert Catesby, defines this “Don’t answer the question they’re asking. If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be no honest answer. Answer the question beneath the question.” He further explains that this doctrine was developed to protect Catholic priests from confessing to their theological position while not lying before God and man. To add to the twists in the play, the playwright, and the group at TheatreWorks, in Palo Alto, which helped to develop this scrip added many equivocating lines about how we audience and they the performs equivocate about what we are doing in the theatre. We tell stories, which we then believe.
The cast of five play so many characters that I could hardly give them credit for their work. Half of the time, I would become so engrossed in the immediate scene that I would forget whether this was portraying the events or the rehearsal of the play which they were creating or some other Shakespeare play which they might put on. Then, as I settled back into my seat, they would put on or throw off costumes, jarring me out of my audience passivity to try to figure out what transformation had just happened. One worry we had early on was the fine print about the performance lasting nearly 3 hours (when contemplating driving home 2 1/2 hours after 11 p.m. curtain call). However, the fast pace from scene to scene, and the multiple themes brought together made my sense of time disappear.
In addition to donning and doffing costumes on stage, the actors don and doff characters as they pop in and out of scenes of the acting company rehearsing to Cecil and Shagspeare deliberating how to draft the play to scenes of torture and interview with the captured conspirators and priest to flashbacks of what had happened which Cecil wishes to un-write from history. If you could follow that sentence, you will like this show. The only character who does not change is Shagspeare’s daughter, Judith. While she appears to be a side-character who wanders in and out hauling laundry, picking up the discarded pages of Shagspeare’s script drafts, and bringing meals to the company, as the play progresses, we begin to realize that she is as much a driving force as Cecil. But, in contrast to Cecil whose ambition and political position afford him the power to manipulate other, Judith must act clandestinely for she has no position or authority. Yet, without Judith, Equivocations would be an epic history of men struggling to their demise. Judith is the relationship to be restored.
Equivocations is set at the end of the Elizabethian period, but the script is quite direct that an underlying theme is the universality of the political and social phenomenon in our own time. While the company and Cecil play out their scenes of power and deceit, Judith protests that these are “just stories”. At one point the players goad the audience by walking to the front of the stage and talking about the process of theatre in which the players portray events, raise and resolves controversies, while the audience watches passively, experiences some emotion, and leaves without action. We tell each other stories. We create our histories. In this process we beg the question of what are the facts and whether we can actually have certainty that the accepted facts are true.
Equivocation. Whose history will we accept now and in the future? Jihad vs War on Terror? Occupy Wallstreet vs the Wallstreet Journal? The American Dream vs the next debt/credit bubble? Weapons of Mass Destruction? Maybe Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, subtly identified what kills more people: “ignorance and want” . What stories do we believe?