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“Equivocation” Is a Riveting, Entertaining Lesson in History, Politics, Theater, Family … and Truth


Is art always political? Is it always didactic?
Does it always hold the “mirror up to nature”?

Bill Cain’s Equivocation explores multiple aspects of creating a timeless theatrical masterpiece (while becoming such a masterpiece itself). A brief Cliff’s Note of the play: “William Shagspeare” is commissioned by Sir Robert Cecil to write a play: The True History of the Gunpowder Plot. As he writes it, the play morphs into The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Under Jerry Sipp’s direction, Theatre in the Park’s production is nothing short of phenomenal. Stephen J. Larson’s set design gives three distinct acting areas. Center stage is an Elizabethan thrust stage. Impressive as “the thing itself,” it is readily converted to a courtroom, to the playwright’s study, to a scene for public execution.

Stage right is Cecil’s study; stage left is a dungeon. The detail that we see in all three areas meets the high level that we have come to expect of Larson’s design and of master carpenter Jeff Nugent’s craftsmanship.

It is noteworthy how well Shawn Stewart-Larson’s costumes “work.” Six actors are costumed for well over 20 roles — some of which are characters in plays that are rehearsed within the play — and many of the costume changes take place on stage, right before our eyes. It is a tribute to both the costuming and the actors’ skills that it is often easy to forget that an actor on stage had just been in a previous scene as a different character.

Students of theater will recognize the names of two characters: Richard Burbage and Robert Armin — the King’s Men’s chief tragedian and chief clown, respectively. They are joined by Nate and Sharpe — two additional members of Shakespeare’s acting company.

We first encounter these four as they rehearse the heath scene of King Lear, followed by a discussion of how Lear simply does not “work.” The four later rehearse scenes from the new work-in-progress. Between these rehearsals, the actors portray different characters in the contemporary political scene.

Mark Phialas seamlessly shifts between the roles of Burbage (and the characters that he plays), Jesuit priest Henry Garnet, and multiple ensemble roles. Also outstanding are Daniel Murphy as Armin, Catesby, and Coke; Jason Hassell as Nate and Cecil; and Preston Campbell as Sharpe, Windsor, King James. Campbell’s comical shifts between King and actor in one scene are performed at a lightning-speed.

Jim O’Brien plays “William Shagspeare,” and Kelly McConkey plays his daughter Judith. Significantly, these are the only two actors who play just one role.

On one level, the play explores the father/daughter relationship and also points to the ways in which Shakespeare’s final plays focus on this subject. Quoting Hamlet’s line to Polonius, Jesuit priest Henry Garnet repeatedly tells Shagspeare, “Look to your daughter,” thus encouraging us to “look to” their relationship.

The chemistry between father and daughter is strong, and it shifts significantly (and believably) as the play plays on. Be sure to tune in closely to the final scene.

The play is rife with inside jokes. Judith’s early soliloquy (about soliloquies) is rich — here and elsewhere “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Watch for King James’ “compliment” to Burbage near the end; it is classic.

Names of other playwrights of the period are bandied about. We hear references to the number of people Shagspeare has “killed” in his scripts. And we hear an actor refer to a number of plays that fall into “this comedies-don’t-have-to-be-funny period.”

On a more cerebral level, Equivocation addresses questions about art and history: Is fiction a lie? Or does it tell a Truth? Can Truth be conveyed in a lie? Is “history” as we know it always true?

Like Shakespeare’s works themselves, this play about Shakespeare’s work has something for everyone. In a vein similar to that of Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous, it is destined to become a classic. Don’t miss it!

SECOND OPINION: June 9th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Trey K. Morehouse:; June 9th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks:; June 3rd Raleigh, NC Time Warner Cable News interview with Jim O’Brien:–jim-o-brien.html; and May 27th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:

Theatre in the Park presents EQUIVOCATION at 7:30 p.m. June 11-13, 3 p.m. June 14, 7:30 p.m. June 19 and 20, and 3 p.m. June 21 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607, presented as part of the “Wherefore: Shakespeare in Raleigh” series.

TICKETS: $22 ($16 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $15 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or

INFORMATION: 919-831-6936.

GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or

SHOW: and




NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.

Equivocation (2009 comedy/drama): (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.) and (Wikipedia).

Bill Cain (Jesuit playwright): (Wikipedia).

Jerry Sipp (Hillsborough, NC director): (official website) and (Facebook page).


Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews