Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“It’s like Shakespeare meets Quentin Tarantino.”
It might seem like an odd pitch, but Marta Cortez-Roncada ‘14’s description of Equivocation, her directing thesis, is definitely accurate. On paper, the show is about Shakespeare and his collaborators writing a new play, but the play chops up history with a Tarantino-like abandon. The end result is more of a political thriller with familiar names than a straight-forward historical drama.
Equivocation follows Shakespeare (called Shagspeare here, and played by Elliot Weiser ‘14) after he is commissioned by King James (Simon Bloch ‘17) to write a play telling the “true” history of the Gunpowder Plot. After being strong-armed by privy councilman Robert Cecil (Morgan Williams ‘14), Shagspeare reluctantly agrees, but his companions at The Globe (Cooper Harrington Fei ‘17; Nathan Siegel ‘15) are far from enthusiastic. Over the course of writing the show, Shagspeare struggles to reconcile the king’s orders and his desire to tell the truth, whatever that may be. The show is full of backroom negotiations, tense arguments, and ideological battles over what it means to tell a “true” story on stage.
The show is named for a religious concept of the same name. To “equivocate” is to deceive without telling an explicit lie. The concept makes a literal appearance in the show, as a Gunpowder Plot conspirator attempts to defend himself in court, but its presence is felt throughout. The central characters are storytellers and, as they say, “stories aren’t true. It’s why they’re stories.” There is an inherent untruth to narrative structure, and Equivocation is not afraid to lean into this brand of deception. Scenes shift physical settings and time periods without stopping, and impossible events are dramatized. The play is hardly historically accurate, but there is truth to be found in it nonetheless.
Equivocation is about the potential of fiction. Shagspeare is commissioned because he has a way with words, and words have power. Words can destroy a life, absolve sins, label heroes and villains. Shagspeare’s words gave Richard III his hump. His words can kill kings.
The production is a delight, with astounding design complementing strong performances. The cast is small, with only six actors portraying nearly 15 parts, but they transition between characters without missing a beat. A high point comes late in the first act when Shagspeare visits one of the conspirators in prison: the scene flows flawlessly into a flashback, then back to the present, and quickly flashes forward to a rehearsal of the events we just witnessed.
Equivocation is appropriately stylized – there is no attempt to recreate reality on the stage. More than one cast member describes the dialogue as Sorkin-esque: it’s “a little bit quicker, a little bit faster than normal people talk,” says Roncada. Weiser agreed, saying that the dialogue “does tend to be inhuman, so it’s difficult to humanize it.” The cast mostly succeeds at the task: the scenes where they are all together are bursting with energy.
The show stumbles slightly as it begins to wrap up – much of the first act is discussions about ideals, so there is a lot of plot to cover in the back half – but the cast is engaging throughout. Casey Ferrara ‘14 (playing Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith) brings a welcome calm to the show, delivering soliloquies about her hatred of theatre that effortlessly communicate the frustration of being surrounded by men who tell lies for a living. Weiser’s Shagspeare and Williams’ Cecil are especially fun to watch. Their scenes together are tense and combative, and neither actor lets the other stay on top for long.
Equivocation is a adroit exploration of the figures behind some of the most well-known stories in history. Whether you’re a Shakespeare nerd or more of a Quentin Tarantino type, it’s sure to entertain.
Performances times for Equivocation are Friday, March 21st at 8pm, Saturday March 22nd at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday, March 23rd at 2pm.
Correction, 3/21/14: Nathan Siegel’s last name was initially misspelled.