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Straight Answers

September 12, 2009

The cast of Equivocation
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

I’ve been away from Ashland, Oregon and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for a few years. This summer, I decided to return to catch up on things now that the artistic reigns of the Festival have been taken over by Bill Rauch, a director with a long history on Southern California stages. He’s made a lot out of those connections already, providing a pipeline for works coming out of South Coast Repertory in Orange County to have continued life up north such as Jeff Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler from last season. He’s also brought many favorite collaborators to Ashland as well including choreographer Ken Roht, playwright Octavio Solis, and L.A.'s own Culture Clash who'll deliver a new work here next year to name only a few. So it was with some anticipation that I greeted Bill Cain’s Equivocation, a world premiere this year that was directed by Rauch in advance of the play’s production at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles early next year.

Luckily, I’ve seen enough projects under Rauch’s guidance to know that Cain’s disastrous play is not likely to be a harbinger of things to come for the festival. Equivocation is almost unbearable. It’s one of those secret life of Shakespeare plays that trades in sly references to trivia about the bard's life and work presumably already known to the audience for laughs and "a-ha" moments. Remember Peter Whelan‘s The School of Night? No? Well don’t worry, you won’t remember Equivocation either. When the play’s villain, Robert Cecil, is given a laugh line in which he suggests to Shakespeare that his plays will surely be remembered 50 years hence, you know you’re in serious trouble. The convoluted and often disintegrating plot concerns the conflict created for Shakespeare and his company of actors when James I, through his servant Robert Cecil, commissions a new play to commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The play focuses on presenting current events in a manner that is politically and ethically palatable to the company and their King as Cain revives conspiracy theories about Robert Cecil's role in using the plot for his own political ends. I’d be hard pressed to make much more out of this play other than to say it also provides opportunities to quote and refer to multiple Shakespeare plays including extended reenactments of bits from Macbeth. The play’s tension derives more from the audience’s pleasure in their ability to identify allusions than any actual dramatic elements. In fact it’s hard for me to imagine any audiences who might be entertained by this monstrosity other than those here in Ashland where the preoccupation with the bard is more than a pastime. There are also plenty of side references to current issues including terrorism and the ethics of torture, but this is hardly enough to make the play interesting, much less coherent.

Vilma Silva (center) with her ladies in waiting from Henry VIII
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

With such a weak opener for my trip to the festival, it made this evening’s other production, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, feel both light and profound by comparison. Arguably one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, Henry VIII has often proved more problematic than any of his “problem plays.” In fact it was a cannon shot during the performance of this play that set off the fire which destroyed the original Globe Theater in 1613. There is little about the storied Tudor king or his problems in a piece that focuses almost exclusively on events leading to the downfalls of Cardinal Wolsey and Catherine of Aragon. The plot is muddled and has none of the arcs that make many of the other history plays great. But this is Ashland, and OSF has a way of turning Shakespeare's straw into watchable theater if not necessarily gold. It was a very good looking, high-quality production with a couple of wonderful performances from Anthony Heald (who also plays Shakespeare in Equivocation) and Vilma Silva in these respective roles. It’s not a staging that’s going to convince anyone of the play’s importance, but it is dutifully done.


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