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Equivocation
by Bill Cain
Directed by Tom Kopp
West End Players Guild
September 28, 2019

Alicen Moser, Roger Erb, John Wolbers, Mark Conrad, Michael Pierce
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is opening their new season with the second play by a local company focusing on the working and personal life of the Bard in two months. There are some major differences, though, between those productions. The last one, Insight’s Shakespeare in Love, was a large-cast comedy. This one, Equivocation, has a relatively small cast and is more dramatic in tone, although it does have its humorous moments. It’s also one of the best productions I’ve seen from this company.

This play is something of a “What if?” story, presenting the playwrights idea of what could have happened in history, even if there’s no concrete evidence that it did. It’s an intriguing idea, too, with successful playwright William Shagspeare (Roger Erb) -as he is called here–being summoned by the Prime Minister, Robert Cecil (John Wolbers), who orders Shagspeare to write a play about the infamous–and recently foiled–“Gunpowder Plot”. Shagspeare is reticent for several reasons, but Cecil is insistent, as is Richard (Reginald Pierre), the leader of Shagspeare’s theatrical troupe. The other players, Nate (also Wolbers), Armin (Mark Conrad) and the newest member, Sharpe (Michael Pierce) are all intrigued as well, but Shagspeare’s daughter, Judith (Alicen Moser), who professes to hate theatre, isn’t so sure, especially since her father states he wants to tell the truth. “How can there be anything true about a play?” she asks, and that’s the big question here. How does a playwright write the truth when so many factors are working against him? There are pressures from his actors to write good roles for them, and to write a play that sells tickets. There’s also the more pressing government pressure to tell the “official” story of the plot, of which Shagspeare is skeptical, to say the least. There’s also his own self-doubt and personal regrets based on past reactions to his plays and what his audience expects from his plays. Add that to the personal tensions he has with his daughter, his lingering grief about having lost his son, and the outlook for this play doesn’t look promising, at least at first. Then, the playwright begins to interview some of the “plotters”–particularly Tom Wintour (also Pierce) and Catholic priest Garnet (also Pierre), learning that there’s a lot more to the story than the “official” account lets on, and that Cecil has his own reasons for wanting this play written and the plotters executed. What ensues is a positively fascinating plot full of twists, turns, memorable characters, and lots of intrigue, with a clever, insightful script and a surprisingly timely subject matter, as a playwright deals with the struggle to tell the truth in a society that is hostile to that truth. It also deals poignantly with issues of parent/child relationships and grief, as well as about the process of writing and an overall sense of love for the theatre. Also, the development of the play Shagspeare is writing, which turns into something you may recognize, is compellingly and cleverly portrayed.

The cast is excellent, led by Erb in an excellent, sympathetic portrayal of a writer, actor and father who searches for, and seeks to best represent, the truth while facing some difficult personal truths. Erb has a strong presence and relates well with the rest of the cast, especially the equally strong Moser as the initially surly, but ultimately well-meaning Judith. The other cast members all play multiple roles, and they play them well, from Wolbers as the scheming, aristocratic Cecil to Pierce as the somewhat insecure up-and-coming actor Sharpe as well as the devout, imprisoned Wintour and another role that’s unlisted but especially important, to Pierre as the determined, proud and aging actor Richard and the intriguing, philosophical Garnet, to Conrad in various roles including actor Armin. Everyone does an impressive job with the transitions between characters, which can sometimes be abrupt. The interplay between the cast members provides a lot of the drama here, and director Tom Kopp keeps the tone and pacing just right. Even though the play is relatively long, it doesn’t seem that way, and is fascinating from start to finish.

Technically, this show makes the most of the basement stage at Union Avenue Christian Church. George Shea’s set is versatile and effective, evoking its era but also allowing for the various changes of setting and for some striking staging effects. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes are also excellent, suiting the characters and the period especially well. There’s also appropriately evocative lighting design by Amy Ruprecht and sound and original music by Susan Kopp.

Equivocation is, unequivocally, a dramatic triumph from West End Players Guild. It’s a play I hadn’t heard of before, and I’m glad to have seen it now. This is a stunning piece of theatre, with a cast that is nothing short of stellar. It’s a superb way to start off a new season from West End Players Guild.

Alicen Moser, Roger Erb, Mark Conrad, Michael Pierce, Reginald Pierre, John Wolbers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players’ Guild is presenting Equivocation at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 6, 2019

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