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One of Shakespeare’s most-famous lines comes from “Hamlet”: Polonius offers his son sage advice, culminating with: “This, above all, to thine own self be true.”
That admonition is at the heart of Bill Cain’s play “Equivocation,” next on view at Silver Spring Stage.
How do Shakespeare (known in the play as “Shag”) and his company of actors react when prime minister Sir Robert Cecil, commissions a play about the Gunpowder Plot — an attempt to blow up king and court — and discover the King’s version might be a cover-up? Can you serve your king, yet maintain artistic integrity?
“The story is very compelling and pulls you in from the first tense — yet humorous — scene between Shag and Cecil,” said Brendan Murray,” the producer. ” It recasts the man we’ve all considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time as a flawed, conflicted, self-doubting, mournful soul struggling to balance truth with art, righteousness with self-preservation, his role as a leader of men and as a father to a strong-willed young woman.”
Madeleine Smith, who is directing, proposed the play to the theater.
She saw the original production when it toured to Arena Stage in 2011, and has loved the Bard since childhood.
“Seeing him combined with the modern pace and electricity reminiscent of [playwright/screenwriter] Aaron Sorkin– blew my mind.” Smith said. “It is a long play, but sitting in the audience felt like the blink of an eye.”
She was struck by the similarity between the world of 1605 England and the “our current moment of American history.”
So was actor Gary Sullivan. “The message is, how to speak truth to powerful people in politically dangerous times? How can you maintain your personal integrity and not sell out … and what are powerful people willing to do to publicize their own version of the truth?”
“Equivocation” offers several dramatic challenges. One is that four of Cain’s six characters play several roles.
Gary Sullivan, for example, portrays both Nate, one of the actors in Shakespeare’s troupe, and Cecil.
Added Murray: “This is one of the most technically challenging show we’ve ever done, involving pyrotechnics, fairly graphic stage executions, swordplay, sound effects, music, and instantaneous character changes.”
Aside from its message, Sullivan found “Equivocation” appealing because it allowed him to spread his wings theatrically.
“I’m usually not cast as a villain, and it has been fun to explore such a dark, despicable character as Cecil, and then contrast that with Nate, who is a lot sunnier and more supportive,” he said. “I also have needed to find ways to project Cecil’s disability — like a limp, poor posture, — in a way that doesn’t become painful for me, or a caricature.”
The balance of the cast consists of: Keith Cassidy as Shag, Tom Howley, Nicholas Temple, David Dubov and Lena Winter.
Smith said she’s grateful that Silver Spring Stage allowed her to make her case for “Equivocation,” and “luckily were as excited about the play as I was. I feel very lucky to have gotten the chance to make this play come to life.”
She is also grateful that in keeping with the original production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the playwright’s swishes, the Stage is presenting the work in period, not modern, costume.
“The deftness with which this play is crafted loses its subtlety and finesse when you update it,” she said. “When that happens, it’s like the director shouting at the audience, “SEE –they are just like us. Don’t you see the parallels?” Audiences deserve more credit than that.”
“Equivocation” plays Jan. 11 – Feb. 2, 2019 at Silver Spring Stage, Woodmoor Shopping Center, 10145 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. www.ssstage.org.