The performance I saw of this outstanding production took place under almost unimaginably difficult circumstances. On Saturday evening, May 24, as the actors in Equivocation were backstage preparing for their 8 p.m. curtain, thousands of students were gathered just a few hundred yards away in Storke Plaza for a vigil to mourn the victims of Friday night’s massacre. After picking up my ticket and making sure that all the theater students were okay, I headed to the plaza, where I observed the vigil and then took part in the first quarter mile of the silent march through campus to Isla Vista. Thousands of people holding candles, holding hands, and holding each other streamed in total silence past the Performing Arts Theater. Although whispers could be heard occasionally among the spectators, within the ranks, the quiet was eerily absolute.
Upon entering the theater, the audience was greeted by director Irwin Appel, who addressed the highly dramatic circumstances of the performance first by admitting that the cast had debated whether or not to perform that night, and then by asking for a moment of silence inside the theater. In the moving statement that followed, Appel acknowledged the difficulty of the decision and offered as the final reason for going ahead the fact that “the spirit of the students in the theater program is the force that renews my life, and we need that force now.”
The play itself was great — unquestionably one of the best things I have seen at UCSB, or anywhere. Playwright Bill Cain has taken a wealth of material about Shakespeare — or “Shagspeare,” as he is known in Equivocation — and woven it into a mesmerizing tapestry of historical speculation, critical analysis, and, most importantly, riveting drama. The core dilemma belongs to Shag (Patrick Arter), who receives a commission in the form of a command from King James I to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot. This commission is delivered, along with the requisite threats and bullying, by the sinister Sir Robert Cecil (Zackery Alexander), and as a result, Shag’s “cooperative venture,” the King’s Company, is thrown into turmoil. How can they perform a play that deals with current events? It’s never been done. And will this play endanger them? The executions that followed the Gunpowder Plot are part of the action in Equivocation, and Ian Elliott, who also does a great job as King James I, plays the conspirator Tom Wintour, who is executed onstage in a rather neat bit of theatrical illusion.
Thankfully, under the circumstances, Equivocation is not all blood and guts. Cain writes the many rehearsal scenes mostly for laughs, allowing the audience to share in his wonder at the sheer ludicrousness of moments like Lear’s wanderings on the heath clad only in a diaper. Above all, Equivocation is a feast for Shakespeareans, a chance to let all the hard hours one has spent learning the history behind the plays pay off in a riot of clever associations and interesting comparisons. Erica Flor plays Judith, Shag’s daughter, as a supremely self-aware figure who has been forced to live too long in the shadow of her dead twin brother, Shag’s son Hamnet. Ultimately, the central message of the show is clear: It is always hard to speak the truth in difficult times, but with the help of our friends and colleagues in this cooperative venture called civilization, it can be done.