Beneath the cavernous gothic arches of a church nave, two men sit hunched over a wooden table. “Your works will last,” Prime Minister Robert Cecil tells Master Shagspeare in the opening scene of Equivocation. “I believe your plays will still be being done … 50 years from now,” he guesses, to the audience’s amusement. Four hundred years later, plays by Shagspeare are most certainly still being done—we just call him Shakespeare.
Kicking off their 15th season, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project—like their predecessors in the 17th century—are currently working in rep. While some nights find them spitting out the soliloquies of Macbeth, other nights they take on different roles in local playwright Bill Cain’s Equivocation. Cain’s play—set in 1606 England—tells a possible tale of how Macbeth might have been written.
Shagspeare (or Shag, as he’s called by his peers) is commissioned to write a play for King James. The play is to chronicle the treasonous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which (according to the King) a group of rebelling Catholics digs a tunnel under Parliament, fills it with gunpowder, and attempts to blow up the King and his court. A decoded letter stifles the plot, however, and the conspirators are locked in the tower and publicly executed. God Save the King!
Directed by Christopher V. Edwards, ASP’s Equivocation works best when the full ensemble takes the stage. They work beautifully together, flitting from scene to scene with ease—one moment practicing a scene from a half-written King Lear, the next arguing over how the gunpowder plot makes dull theater, the next changing characters completely (facilitated by slight, swift costume changes designed by Jessica Pribble) and entering a Jacobean court room.
Ed Hoopman, for example, plays the hotheaded young actor Sharpe but doubles equally well as a hilarious King James and a suffering, starving Catholic conspirator. Maurice Parent’s performance also stands out—as he shifts from portraying the hunchbacked, manipulative Robert Cecil to a cross-eyed witch to a no-name actor, Nate. Hoopman and Parent are compelling as different characters just by the way they stand, cock an eyebrow, laugh, or harrumph. If to equivocate is to “double,” ASP’s actors have learned the (very long) script well. Where the performance lagged, another scene shift followed, at least, to pick it up again.
As Shag (played by a sensitive, straightforward Steven Barkhimer) and his company struggle to rehearse his overwrought first drafts of The True History of the Gunpowder Plot, they start to poke holes in the official story of the Gunpowder Plot, which only discourages Shag from continuing with the project. How to write not about the king, but around him? He almost throws in the towel completely, until his daughter Judith (played sassily by Kimberly Gaughan) pulls an old draft from the bin and urges her father to finish it. In the end, we get Macbeth, which has nothing outright to do with the gunpowder plot, but everything to do with power, greed, and regicide.
EQUIVOCATION. THROUGH 11.10 AT UNITED PARISH OF BROOKLINE, 210 HARVARD ST., BROOKLINE. ACTORSSHAKESPEAREPROJECT.ORG