Review | Equivocation: Jacobean swells having fun

Walking Shadow Theatre Company, performing at the Gremlin, 550 Vandalia, St. Paul

Damon C. Mentzer, Mitch Ross, Peter Simmons, Eve Gemlo and Sdwin Strout in EQUIVOCATION. Photo by Dan Norman.

Since 2004, Walking Shadow Theatre Company has been the area’s premier provider of historical drama: Hatchet Lady, Carrie Nation, Angel Of Destruction (19th century U.S.); Marie Antoinette (18th century France); Gross Indecency, The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde (19th century England); Drakul (18th century – I think – Transylvania). To name but a few. These plays are not just exercises in cutesy nostalgia; to their credit, WSTC takes this historical material seriously, and treats the plays as genuine dramatic explorations. In this way, they do us a real service.

And now, Bill Cain‘s long, often lugubrious but just as often rip-roaringly theatrical Equivocation (you know you’re in deep water when a theater’s explanation of a play title takes a full page in the program). Equivocation (at the Gremlin, 550 Vandalia, St. Paul) deals with the aftermath of the Great Gunpowder Plot. This was the concealment, by disgruntled Catholics, of a massive amount of gunpowder in the cellar below the English parliament. The powder was discovered, luckily, before it blew up. If you were British it wouldn’t be necessary to explain this.

King James I has given a garbled King-penned scenario about the nefarious Plot to a theatrical impresario, Robert Cecil. “I want witches.” Cecil passes it to a semi-succesful playwright, Shag. Aka Shagspeare, aka William Shakespeare. Write me a play. I can’t; this is awful. You have two weeks.

Equivocation is thus about all kinds of stuff: the nature of conspiracy, the nature of theater, the act of acting, the nature of success/failure, religious passion, family. Etcetera. These thematic concerns are reflected in the play’s length (almost 3 hours) and in the fact that many scenes are slow, static and, for me anyway, hard-to-follow.

But many scenes are wonderful, chockful of infectious energy and lovely broad comedy. The King’s scenario becomes the basis for the Scottish play (Macbeth). How this occurs is a mystery but who cares. It’s great fun. Cain’s grasp of the period is spot on and he gives his cast an opportunity to tear a passion to tatters and just generally have a good time. And when actors are enjoying themselves, in my experience, so is the audience.

Everyone is Equivocation is terrific. As Cecil, Peter Simmons underplays his over-the-top cast-mates to great effect. Eva Gemlo as Shag’s daughter is sweet and assertive. As the King (and many others) Mitch Ross is lanky, handsome and terrific. As Shag, Damon C. Mentzer drives every scene he’s in. And then there’s the heroic John Heimbuch, taking over for an actor with a personal emergency. His quiet presence is exquisite – and he makes you forget he’s holding a script.

Director Amy Rummenie has staged this play with quiet and intelligent energy. Her use of music is excellent. She no doubt got a lot of help from “composer and sound designer” Thomas Speltz.

So. Here’s my advice: see this play. Deal with the long scenes, knowing there’s plenty o’ fun stuff coming.

And BTW: the beer in the onsite taproom is first rate. Skol!

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. John’s The Voice Of The Prairie has been performed 100 plus times and ditto Minnesota Moon and his adaptation of Sideways Stories From Wayside School. Please visit his informational website.

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