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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American Players Theatre announces exciting schedule for next season

SPRING GREEN, WIS: American Players Theatre (APT) is excited to announce its 39th summer season, which will run June 9 to October 14, 2018. In APT’s flagship outdoor amphitheater, William Shakespeare will bookend the Hill season with As You Like It and Measure for Measure. Also playing on the Hill: Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, George Farquhar’s restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.

The 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre will host: Exit the King by Eugéne Ionesco, Blood Knot by Athol Fugard and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (a play featuring prisoners putting on a production of The Recruiting Officer). The 2018 shoulder season opening in November will feature John Morogiello’s Engaging Shaw.

 In advance of the 2017 season, APT launched an $8 million capital campaign, titled The Next Great Stage campaign, to rebuild the Hill Theatre stage, lobby and backstage area. As of the close of the season, APT is thrilled to announce that the $8 million fundraising goal has been met, and the construction project is fully funded.

Artistic Director Brenda DeVita said, “We are so grateful to every single person who helped us build our beautiful new stage. The past 12 months have been absolutely wild, and this summer we were able to produce plays that would just not have been possible for us in the past. The flexibility it gives us – the creativity it inspires – can only continue to make the experience richer for our patrons and our artists. The plan for 2018 is to take what we’ve learned and hand it over to a group of directors who, for the most part, didn’t direct on the Hill last season. And, you know, just see what new magic they come up with. I can’t wait see where their vision takes us, and I can’t wait to direct on the Hill for the first time myself.”

The 2018 season schedule will be available in early January. Tickets will go on sale to returning patrons on March 5 at 7:00 am online at americanplayers.org, and at 10:00 am via the APT Box Office by phone at 608-588-2361.

The 2018 Season, June 9 – October 14, 2018

 

ON THE HILL

As You Like It By William Shakespeare

Directed by James Bohnen

Two of Shakespeare’s favorite devices – cross-dressing and running away to the woods– meet in glorious fashion in As You Like It. Rosalind and Celia are best friends and cousins. But when Celia’s father, the Duke, begins to see Rosalind as a threat to his daughter’s future prosperity, the two women don disguises (with Rosalind pretending to be a boy named Ganymede) and head to the Forest of Arden before Rosalind can be banished. Meanwhile, Orlando, a young gentleman who had previously fallen in love with Rosalind, is similarly threatened by his own brother and also flees to the Forest. There, he meets “Ganymede,” who promises to teach him how to woo Rosalind. All that plus a band of merry woods-dwelling misfits make for a great Shakespearean comedy.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jaques, Melisa Pereyra as Rosalind and Marcus Truschinski as Touchstone.

Born Yesterday By Garson Kanin

Directed by Brenda DeVita

Shady businessman Harry Brock heads to Washington with his ex-showgirl girlfriend Billie Dawn in an attempt to shift the law to his side. When Brock decides that Billie is too unrefined to mix with the DC political set, he hires journalist Paul Verrall to make her appear more intelligent. But a little education can go a long way, and Billie may be smarter than her “friends” give her credit for. A hilarious and timely send up of politics and perceptions.

Featuring: David Daniel as Harry Brock and Colleen Madden as Billie Dawn.

The Recruiting Officer Written by George Farquhar

Directed by William Brown

Scoundrels are put on notice and women (literally) wear the pants in this uproarious restoration comedy. Recruiting officers travel from port to port wooing men into service at sea, and women into their beds. Two such men, Worthy and Plume, land in Shrewsbury each in love with a woman who lives there. Worthy has asked Melinda to be his mistress – an offer that she declined. Meanwhile, Plume is in love with Melinda’s cousin Silvia. But Silvia, grieving her brother’s recent death, disguises herself as a man to get away for a while, throwing everyone’s plans into comedic chaos.

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan as Silvia, Nate Burger as Plume and Marcus Truschinski as Brazen.

Heartbreak House Written by George Bernard Shaw

Adapted by Aaron Posner Directed by Aaron Posner

Sweet Ellie Dunn has been invited to a party along with her father and fiancé at the home of the eccentric Captain Shotover, where he lives with his bohemian daughter Hesione and her husband Hector. But it soon comes to light that Ellie has eyes for another man. Surprises hit one after the other, when it turns out Ellie’s “true love” is not who he appeared to be, Shotover’s other daughter, Ariadne, shows up at the party after a 23-year absence, and the evening is peppered with burglars and bomb scares. A rich Shavian comedy about human folly and the charming and self-absorbed gentry.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold as Hesione, Jim DeVita as Hector and Colleen Madden as Ariadne.

Measure for Measure Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Risa Brainin

The city of Vienna is rife with vice, and good Duke Vincentio wants to put a stop to it. So in hopes that a new leader will change the people’s wicked ways, he steps down and appoints his trusted minister Angelo to rule in his place. But as Angelo assumes control of the city, his hunger for power grows, and he reinstates strict morality laws with deadly penalties. Claudio, the first to feel the bite of these laws, calls upon his sister Isabella, an aspiring nun, to help prove his innocence. But when Isabella approaches Angelo and appeals to his better nature, she finds he doesn’t have one, and must choose between her brother and her virtue.

 

Featuring: Melisa Pereyra as Isabella and Marcus Truschinski as Angelo. 

THE TOUCHSTONE THEATRE

Blood Knot By Athol Fugard

Directed by Ron OJ Parson

Two brothers live a quiet, strained existence in a tiny house in apartheid South Africa. Morris, who has very fair skin, and has in the past passed as white, has recently returned to Port Elizabeth and is living with his brother Zachariah, who works long, painful hours as a sentry at the gate of a whites-only park. Despite Morris’ constant presence, Zach is lonely for the company of a woman, so Morris suggests he find a pen pal. When it turns out Zach’s pen pal is a white woman, the brothers’ desperation exposes the complex angles of their relationship in this powerful play by the man who wrote The Island (produced at APT in 2015) and Exits and Entrances (at APT in 2010).

Featuring: Jim DeVita as Morris and Gavin Lawrence as Zachariah.

 

Exit the King By Eugène Ionesco

Translated by Neil Armfield & Geoffrey Rush

Directed by Kenneth Albers

An absurdist masterpiece in the Touchstone Theatre. A fading ruler at the helm of a world in decline, King Berenger is having some trouble accepting his fate. His first wife, Marguerite, is intent on forcing him to face his mortality, while his second wife, Marie, wants to shield him from the bad news. All the while an eccentric mix of servants weigh in from the sidelines, with varying degrees of helpfulness. A very funny and deeply moving look at the end of it all.

Featuring: James Ridge as King Berenger.

 

Our Country’s Good By Timberlake Wertenbaker

Adapted from the novel “The Playmaker” by Thomas Keneally

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

A group of soldiers and criminals have been sent to Australia as part of a recently created penal colony. The conditions are bad all around, as food is scarce for both jailor and jailed, and the punishment for theft is dire. To raise morale (and in hopes of being noticed by the governor), Lieutenant Ralph Clark decides to stage a production of

Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer, cast with inmates. But Ralph has his hands full with this group of actors, who are sometimes loveable, sometimes unscrupulous, and always perfectly human. Offering funny and candid conversations about incarceration, sex and the redemptive power of art, this play pairs particularly well with The Recruiting Officer. Note: contains strong language and adult themes.

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan and Nate Burger (roles TBA).

Opening in November

Engaging Shaw By John Morogiello

With excerpts from Bernard Shaw

Directed by David Frank

George Bernard Shaw is well known for his writing, wit and commitment to social justice. But in his time, he was also known for being an unrepentant philanderer. His aversion to marriage was so strong that he clung to it even in the face of the clever and charismatic Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who is clearly more than a match for him.

Urged on by their friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the two would-be lovers trade witty barbs as they form a close friendship. The question at the center of this charming romantic comedy is whether or not they’ll ever admit how close that friendship is.

Featuring: Colleen Madden as Charlotte Payne-Townshend and James Ridge as George Bernard Shaw.

 

For more information, visit www.americanplayers.org