Michael Cotey directs a masterful production of a Shakespearen mystery at Next Act

The players at a Shakespearean mystery at Next Act

Just take a look around you and shake your head at this world we live in.

Truth vs. Lies. Alternative facts. Demands for unbridled flattery. Opposing forces of government. Treachery. Sorrow and jealousy.

If it sounds familiar it should but you can actually see this whole thing in action in “Equivocation,” the play by Bill Cain that opened at Next Act Theatre Friday night  under the

The play takes place in 1605 and is focused on a moral dilemma for the greatest playwright ever, William Shakespeare (called Shag in this play).

Robert Cecil, the right-hand man for King James and the power behind the throne, calls Shakespeare to him for a commission to write a play about the famed Gunpowder Plot, a plan to dig a tunnel under the Parliament building and blow the whole thing to smithereens with barrels full of explosives.

Along the way, the king, queen, children and various Lords of the Peerage will perish and perhaps England will be religiously unified. The country is plagued with conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

There is just one catch to this scheme. Shakespeare must write his play based on the story of the incident, a story written by the King himself. And, as expected, the King’s tale has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth and goes to great effort to paint His Highness in a most favorable light.

Thus the dilemma for our playwright.

Does he take the money for the commission and write a play that is predetermined and demanded by the King and his henchman, or does he search for the truth to create a work that will be honored and live in posterity?

Forces in every corner of his life threaten to pull this tormented genius apart.

Robert and the King are on one side. Shakespeare’s company of actors at the Old Globe are split, some wanting the money, some just wanting to act. Then there is Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith the sister whose twin brother died as a youth. She has never felt the love that her father had for her brother, yet she admires his work and loves him as a storyteller.

In addition to this play be a tale about the conflict between honesty and falsity but a tale of the accurate and unvarnished account of events.

More than anything the search for the truth of the government version of Gunpowder Plot (celebrated the 4th of November in England even as Guy Fawkes Day) resonates so powerfully today,

Instead of King James, we have Donald Trump and his coterie of sycophantic adjutants. We also have the kind of passion for flattery from the president, the sangfroid over the tsunami of alternative facts and the sanctimonious bluster of righteousness.

It is this parallel that Mr. Cotey has found and that he plumbs for all it is worth. This production switches smoothly between scenes of reality and those that are being played by the actors. At times it is problematic to tell which is which, but it hardly matters. It is left to the audience to decide what is real (true) and what is not. The difficulty crystallizes in a small moment when Shakespeare visits with Father Garnet, who is imprisoned for being a conspirator in the plot. The good priest asks what play is being written.

SHAG. The True History of the Powder Plot.

GARNET [RICHARD]. (Ahhhhh-) By John Shagspeare’s son. (Yes.) We are in good hands. (Then.) And that’s why you’re here? You’ve come to me to learn the truth about the Powder Plot?

SHAG. The truth? Fuck the truth. I’ve come to you to learn how to equivocate. And this is the key. Equivocation is Shag’s way out. Teach me. To equivocate.

GARNET   [RICHARD]. (Annoyed.) It’s not a way to lie, you know –  equivocation -it’s a way of telling the truth.

SHAG. (Exactly!) That’s what I want to do. I want to tell the truth. I just don’t want to get caught at it.Look, here are my choices – lie or die. I don’t want to do either.  You have written a book –  probably a very tedious book –  on how to tell the truth in difficult times. Give me a short course in that and I promise you, I will do the best I can.

GARNET  [RICHARD].   (Considers, then ) Right. (Garnet becomes the teacher he was born to be.) Man comes to the door.

SHAG. (Dutiful student.} Man comes to the door.

GARNET [RICHARD]. And he asks you, “Is the King inside?” –

SHAG. He is and I say, “No.” How is that not a sin? And on – my – oath – how is that not a damnable sin?

GARNET [RICHARD]. (The crux of it.) Ask yourself- what­ is this man – really –   asking?

SHAG. (I’ve got this one!} Where’s the King?

GARNET [RICHARD]. No.

SHAG. No?

GARNET [RICHARD]. Well, yes. Of course, on the surface, yes. But what does he really want to know? Really?

SHAG. He really wants to know Where? The King?  Is?

GARNET [RICHARD]. (Nasty teacher.) Simon was right about you. You’re a slow student.

SHAG. (Nasty schoolboy.) He was a dull man and you are what they say you are –  a clever liar.

GARNET [RICHARD]. (Bitterly.) If I wanted to lie, all I would hav_e to do is take the Oath of Uniformity. If I were to lie, what wouldn’t they give me? {Amused.) They’d make me Archbishop of Canterbury. SHAG. Why not then? Lie?

GARNET [RICHARD]. Pray God I don’t. They’ll be after me till the end.

SHAG. No, but really- why not?

(Garnet evaluates Shag. Then he does what he does best. He re­ forms the abstract question into a personal one.)

GARNET [RICHARD]. What would have happened to your

father – if he had sworn to what he did not believe was true? SHAG. (Remembering his father.) He would have ceased to be him­ sel£ (Then, deeper.) I can’t afford to have that happen to me. (Deeper still) I can’t afford to go to hell.

GARNET [RICHARD]. There’s always purgatory.

SHAG. (Immediately resentful) They closed it. Bastards. I don’t miss anything else from the old religion, but how could they take away pur­gatory? Some hope for people who won’t make heaven on the first try.

Mr. Cotey had an exquisite cast of actors to work with in this production and he shows his roots as an actor by giving them space and pace to do their finest work.

Mark Ulrich plays Shag, Jonathan Smoots is Richard (an actor in the company) and Father Garnet, David Cecsarini plays both Robert Cecil, and Nate, another actor; T. Stacy Hicks, whom we never see enough of on Milwaukee stages, plays Armin, an actor in the troupe as well as a delightful Lady Macbeth, Josh Krause plays Sharpe, an actor, Thomas Wintour, a conspirator and King James himself, and Eva Nimmer plays Judith. Watching these six actors on a stage is what makes excellent theater so excellent.

A word must also be said about Mr. Cotey, who cut his teeth on theater in Milwaukee and has moved to Chicago where he has earned his Masters at Northwestern. He is an actor of experience and talent but the path he is paving as a director is filled with the kind of skill you rarely see in such a young director.

An example came in the second act when Mr. Krause, as the imprisoned plotter, is virtually paralyzed by injury as Shag watches him struggle to pick up a pencil to write a final letter to his wife and sons.

It is an impossibly long moment as a hush settled over the audience. You could see people leaning forward, holding their breath, lips tight in concentration and hope as Mr. Cotey let the clock tick as all of the air was sucked out of the room. When the fingers finally touched the pencil, after an impossibly long journey, you could see smiles on faces. It was a glorious moment and one that signals the kind of sensitivity and bravery it takes to be a successful director.

Mr. Cecsarini has built a company that features works that are probing and often have a profound relation to the world in which we live. This is another of those productions.

Equivocation runs through February 25.

Production Credits: Director, Michael Cotey; Scenic Design, Sotirios Livadtis; Lighting Design, Alexander Ridgers;  Costume Designer, Amanda Gladu, Sound Design, Grover Hollway; Properties Design, Heidi Salter and Shannon Sloan-Spice; Fight Director, Christopher Elst; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner; Stage Manager, Jessica Connellly.

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About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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