REVIEW: ‘Equivocation’ at the Arden offers word play at its best

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For Digital First Media

William “Shagspeare” is offered a royal commission, that he cannot refuse, to write a play about the Gunpowder plot of 1605, but when the members of the Globe Theatre begin to stage it in rehearsal, the events as chronicled simply don’t make sense. Shag (Eric Hissom), wanting to fathom the facts of the matter, ultimately uncovers multiple layers of treachery, lies and deceit, but also discovers many areas of truth and enlightenment, all of which could lead to potential danger. Polemics and politics increase tension within the troupe, and dissention and excess drama ensue as they vote on what to do with this powderkeg of a play. How can Shag adapt the events within the specific parameters he has been handed by the King’s crafty powerbroker, Sir Robert Cecil (Dan Hodge) without literally losing his head, or his soul over it?

IF YOU GO: “Equivocation” runs now through Dec. 13 at Arden Theatre Co., 40 N 2nd St., Philadelphia. For tickets and more information, check www.ardentheatre.org. Note: Production contains some profanity and male nudity.

Wit and wisdom are paired as the essence of family, faith and truth are explored in this fascinating fictional historical setting, by “Equivocation’s” author, Bill Cain, a Jesuit Priest and founder of the Boston Shakespeare Company. Under Terrence J. Nolen’s elegant direction scene segues are legato, nearly seamless, character transitions ultra smooth and the captivating two hour and 45 minute production is vibrant, impressively tight, and beautifully staged.
Eric Hissom’s sincere portrayal of Shag, delivered within Arden’s intimate Arcadia Stage, feels like a Bard we can bond with during his Kobayashi Maru like, no-win dramatic dilemma. Hissom makes Shag palpable, human, and believable. Much is learned during his character’s discourse with Henry Garnet, poignantly played by Ian Merrill Peakes, about the intrinsic nature of truth, redemption and how to form equivalent answers to underlying questions. Peakes gives poise to Garnet’s lament over the Protestants tossing out purgatory from the religion, where a soul could hope to attain purification, and then swiftly swerves into theater treasurer Richard without a hitch. Dan Hodge absolutely rocks the role of Cecil, the coercive agency behind the throne, dividing and conquering with cunning.

Dan Hodge as Nate, Sean Lally as Sharpe, and Eric Hissom as Shag in Arden Theatre Company's production of Equivocation. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Dan Hodge as Nate, Sean Lally as Sharpe, and Eric Hissom as Shag in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Equivocation. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Hodge utilizes his body, voice and presence to fabulous affect, then totally changes demeanor to achieve the role of Globe member, Nate. Other members of their theater family include Sharpe, vivaciously played by Sean Lally, who also turns nimbly into Tom Wintour, and gives a regal rambunctiousness to King James I, and Armin, well wrought by Anthony Lawton, who also remarkably renders the First Priest, Robert Catesby and Sir Edward Coke. Shag’s flesh and blood family is excellently represented by talented Campbell O’Hara as his unequivocating businesslike daughter, Judith, who manages the ‘house’ and saves the day.
A clever, highly adaptable minimalist set (David P. Gordon) assists the many changes performed in this provoking and packed piece, along with eloquent lighting (Solomon Weisbard) and sensational sound (Jorge Cousineau). The brawling and fight scenes (Ian Rose) feel real and costumes (Rosemarie McKelvey) fit well overall.
The terrific scene in which backstage, onstage and play within the play audience were brought together seemed like an ending, but wait, there’s more … And there is so much to see and to think about in this show; great comedic moments, conflict and contemporary parallels, and such excellence upon the stage, that it continues to echo afterwards.
Note: Production contains some profanity and male nudity.

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