William Shakespeare is a towering literary legend. It can be really, really difficult to portray a guy like him as a flesh-and-blood person who once ate, slept and had a family. In his drama Equivocation Bill Cain opens with a meeting. There’s Shakespeare being given a commission for a play he doesn’t want to write. This month the drama resonates into the Next Act Theatre. Mark Ulrich sits there at the opening of the play in the center of the stage as “Shag.” He’s being asked to write about the recent past. The Gunpowder Plot would make for interesting drama, but “current events” simply aren’t done onstage. Shakespeare doesn’t want to do it. Ulrich inhabits a kind of passionate exhaustion in the role of Shakespeare that’s present from that very first moment. It brings the legend down to earth so as to elevate his passions into something far more electrifying than some stuffy, old legend about a guy who wrote plays a few hundred years ago.
The villain of the story is the man giving Shakespeare the commission. He’s a nobleman who speaks for the king...and the king wants a story about the Gunpowder Plot. He’s played with a deft and brutal wit by David Cecsarini. In the course of the drama, we see the character slice through a very precise character arc that Cecsarini manages with impressive emotional precision. Shakespeare is coerced into bringing the project back to The Globe for development. Director Michael Cotey gives The Globe an earthiness with an excellent cast playing an excellent cast. Milwaukee stage veteran Jonathan Smoots plays a veteran Globe actor Richard Burbage...a professional who clashes with Shakespeare throughout the story. Smoots’ chiseled charisma serves the role well. He also plays Father Henry Garnet--a Jesuit priest implicated in the plot. Shakespeare drags himself to see the man in the interest of getting the story right and gets more than he would have expected in a story that manages to remain totally compelling for a solid 3 hours onstage.
Always a welcome presence in anything to do with Shakespeare, T. Stacy Hicks is delightful in a few different roles. He’s perfectly-cast as one of Shakespeare’s players. Josh Krause is excellent in the role of an actor as well, but he’s at his best here in the role of King James I--played here as a particularly jovial and playful Scotsman. Eva Nimmer smartly plays the most clever component of the cast--Shakespeare’s daughter Judith. She hates soliloquies and so therefore is the only one who speaks directly to the audience.
Shakespeare’s challenge is to write a drama about people who haven’t died yet. There's honesty, there's respect, there's duty and..then there's the play. There are political concerns constricting everything. Shakespeare becomes investigator and journalist as well as actor and playwright. Family drama and very topical concerns about the nature of truth loom into view. Cherry pick what you want for the release of some damned self-serving memo and label anything you don’t like as fake news, but you’re doing a severe disservice to the people you want to tower over. More than simply historical, Equivocation is an important exploration into the importance of getting the story right...not just for now, but for those people who have to live with the stories we tell once we’re gone.
Next Act’s production of Equivocation runs through Feb. 25 at Next Act’s space on 255 S. Water St. For more information visit Next Act online.