Total Rating: 
February 1, 2018
February 25, 2018
Next Act Theater
Theater Type: 
Next Act Theater
Theater Address: 
255 South Water Street
Running Time: 
2 hrs, 45 min
Bill Cain
Michael Cotey

Milwaukee’s Next Act Theater reveals the many sides of William Shakespeare in Equivocation by playwright Bill Cain. The play is set in 1606 London, where Shakespeare has been summoned to write a commission for the king. Then things get complicated – far too complicated, if Shakespeare is to be believed.

Bill Cain is a graduate of Northwestern University, and a man of many talents: he is a Jesuit priest (according to the program notes), and the founder of a Shakespeare company in Boston. All these elements come into play in the cerebral and thought-provoking Equivocation. With a nod to the play’s title, some scenes in Equivocation are very good. Others, not so much.

The play premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and had its Off-Broadway opening in a 2010 production by Manhattan Theater Club. Although the play is set in 1606, Shakespeare is, in many ways, a modern man. He speaks in modern English (as do all the actors). Shakespeare and all the players are costumed in Elizabethan garments, many of which are outstanding (credit to costume designer Amanda Gladu). In the shadow of a set that resembles Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Shakespeare attempts to balance the desires of the court with his own aim: to “hold up a mirror” to mankind.

As the most prominent playwright of his time, Shakespeare (Mark Ulrich) is offered a rare gift – a commission from the king to create a play of political intrigue surrounding current affairs. Summoning Shakespeare to court to deliver this news is the king’s lackey, Sir Robert Cecil (David Cecsarini). There is a good deal of humorous banter between the two. Sensing a trap, Shakespeare tells Cecil that his plays are decidedly historical, not contemporary. He mentions another playwright who he feels could do a better job with the material. Cecil claims that Shakespeare’s plays “will probably last 50 years” after his death. Yet, in the future, he says, even the existence of Shakespeare will be questioned.

These audience in-jokes are woven throughout the script. They take some of the tedium out of the Gunpowder Plot. It is viewed as a terrorist attack by Roman Catholics against the throne. The king wants his people to see how his advisors were tipped off to this dastardly plot, in which barrels of gunpowder were set to go off underneath Parliament, killing an untold number of people. As Shakespeare researches the subject, he realizes that the “plot” is a ruse to claim more land and riches for the lords. The plot’s “conspirators” are killed as traitors, including an old Jesuit priest (Jonathan Smoots).

Once the priest confesses to knowing what the group of young men were planning, it doesn’t make sense to write a play about it. Shakespeare is free to once again write what he wishes. The Scottish king’s only request: that his play have witches. The result is Macbeth, about a Scottish king who is advised by three weird sisters (witches).

Some of the show’s best moments have actor Jonathan Smoots, a regular at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wis., don a cape (and, in one case, a diaper) to become King Lear. Those who have seen Smoots play dozens of roles in Elizabethan dramas should get a chuckle out of this. Smoots also plays the title in Macbeth, a play which almost never made it to the stage.

When the actors take their parts in Macbeth, Equivocation picks up steam during a rousing and well-executed sword fight (credit to fight choreographer Christopher Elst).

Other favorite scenes involve Josh Krause as King James I. Wearing a red and ermine-trimmed cape and a crown, the king draws a lot of laughter for his juvenile antics. Anyone who has seen the musical Hamilton will immediately see the similarities between this king and the unforgettable King George III. Krause also amuses with his thick Scottish brogue.

All the characters are double-cast, and director Michael Cotey does an excellent job of keeping the audience apprised of which character is being played in a particular scene.

Actor Michael Ulrich has the most difficult role in portraying Shakespeare, universally acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest playwrights. Ulrich is clever, wary and optimistic. His Shakespeare is careful to pay homage to the king, lest he be considered a traitor. Ulrich also shows a personal side of Shakespeare as a man who grapples emotionally with the death of his only son. The son’s twin sister Judith (played with understated charm by Eva Nimmer) knows that she is the less favored one of Shakespeare’s children. Still, she carries on with daughterly duties.

The end of the play, when Shakespeare seems to look at her with new eyes, is very touching. Equally affecting is the scene in which Richard (Smoots), one of the Globe’s actors, claims that he values Shakespeare’s friendship above all else. Ulrich is obviously touched by this pledge of loyalty.

Next Act is to be commended for staging this smart, stylish play. It may drag a bit during the details of the Gunpowder Plot, but it has a lot to offer those who are willing to “take a mirror” to their own humanity.

Mark Ulrich (Shakespeare); David Cecsarini (Sir Robert Cecil, etc.); Josh Krause (Sharpe, etc.); Jonathan Smoots (Richard, etc.); T. Stacy Hicks (Armin, etc.); Eva Nimmer (Judith).
Set: Sotirios Livaditis; Costumes: Amanda Gladu; Lighting: Alexander Ridgers; Sound: Grover Hollway.
Anne Siegel
Date Reviewed: 
February 2018