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Another 5 out of 5, EQUIVOCATION at the Kav is clever, funny, touching and accessible.

THE BASICS:  EQUIVOCATION, a play by the impressive Bill Cain about Shakespeare set in 1606, directed by the brilliant Katie Mallinson, with a stellar ensemble of Guy Balotine, Arianne Davidow, Christoper Avery, Christopher Guilmet, Adriano Gatto, Darryl Semira opened on April 26 and runs to May 19, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, Sundays at 2 at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue. Full service bar, unique snacks (829-7668). Runtime: 2 hours 45 minutes, but it will feel like half that time. Trust me. It’s that good.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: While describing the play on paper might make it seem harder to follow than it is on stage, just know that EQUIVOCATION is completely engaging from beginning to end. King James I of England has ordered Shakespeare to write a play about the failed “Gunpowder Plot” in which Guy Fawkes and other pro-Catholic sympathizers had attempted, but failed, to assassinate the King, his family, and all of Parliament by blowing them up with barrels of gunpowder. Shakespeare chafes at the assignment, seeing it as nothing more than a propaganda piece, but he has also seen what happens to people who defy the King. Then, during the trials of the conspirators, the accused Jesuit priest Father Garnet famously uses “equivocation.” You should look it up, but here’s one definition: “the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself.” The Jesuit shows “Shag” that there are usually two answers to every question because there are always two questions being asked – the surface question and the deeper question. Knowing that King James I of England was Scottish, and was fascinated by the supernatural, including witchcraft, Shag decides to take another look at what the King is really asking for and with the help of his daughter, dusts off a play he’d been working on, one about Scottish royal succession, with ghosts and witches, a play that would ultimately come to be almost synonymous with equivocation, “O, come in, equivocator.”

Arianne Davidow, Guy Balotine | Photo by Diane Almeter Jones

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: What a romp this is, mixing history with fiction, blending Shakespeare quotes with new dialog, occasionally in iambic pentameter, and actors switching roles sometimes in mid-sentence. But this is not at all “theatrical tricks.” Each character has humanity, they care deeply about one another and we care about them. With the right director for the job and a deep pool of talent to work with, they nail it.

In any line of work, applying your trade in a variety of situations makes you better, whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, or an actor. And what sets this group of actors apart from many is the number of different stages upon which they’ve each trod, many out of town and on the coasts.

There’s one actor each for the roles of Shakespeare and his daughter Judith. Guy Balotine is a most convincing “Shag.” Educated in London, a member of a San Francisco Shakespeare company, with movie and TV credits, he holds nothing back. The bard’s daughter, Judith, is played by Arianne Davidow, in demand on a variety of local stages and a graduate of the prestigious Niagara University system.

But the nine other named roles along with numerous roles identified as “others” are played by only four actors. How good is this ensemble? Let me tell you this: at the curtain calls, I looked on stage and saw six people but could not shake the feeling that there must be, there have to be, other actors in the wings. I did not have to engage in “the willing suspension of disbelief!” I was a believer from the first moment of the play. So, who are those folks?

Multiple roles are played by Chris Avery, a favorite of Kavinoky audiences, perhaps most for his role as the exasperated aide-de-camp in BEN BUTLER, and he never, ever disappoints. Christopher Guilmet brings his extensive experience working on both coasts (NYC, LA, Seattle, etc.) to roles with “gravitas” and, a bit taller than the others and with a commanding voice, takes on both “Richard,” the leader of Shakespeare’s troupe, and the role of Father Garnet who is simultaneously an accused man on the docket and father-confessor of “Shag” himself.

Adriano Gatto, having just finished playing a drop-dead David Frost in FROST/NIXON at the Irish Classical, is a whirling dervish of delight as, among several roles, King James himself. With credits including the Folger Shakespeare Theatre and being Fight Director with over 100 productions (including this play) he brings joy and energy to any production.

And with experience on both stage and screen, on Broadway and LA, one of the more exciting additions to the Buffalo scene is Darryl Semira who, when he puts on the English accent, is pretty damn stunning.

…it is telling that four of the six roles are played by Equity actors.

While some argue that being a member of Actor’s Equity is not a perfect surrogate for skill and talent, it is telling that four of the six roles are played by Equity actors. It shows.

Guy Balotine as Shakespeare | Photo by Diane Almeter Jones

The genius of playwright Bill Cain, and by the way that’s Father Bill Cain, SJ (Society of Jesus, or “Jesuit”), is knowing how to pace a play including the timing of scenes as he ties together some historical facts. Jesuits constantly strive to “find God in all things” and so they know a lot of things, and Fr. Bill loves to connect them all. Here are a few historical facts: “The Scottish Play” was written for King James I’s entertainment, the King was the intended target for “The Gunpowder Plot,” one of the accused was a Jesuit priest who was accused of “equivocation” on the stand,  Shakespeare’s children included twins, Judith and Hamnet, but Hamnet died at age 11. (“Grief fills the room up of my absent child…My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!” from King John is thought to be Shag’s personal lament.)

So, of course, a Jesuit is the right man to write this play. If you look up the word “Jesuitical” you are told that it’s an adjective meaning “dissembling or equivocating, in the manner associated with Jesuits.” Ha! Well, that’s their reputation. One of my favorite jokes concerns two young novices who approach their superior. The first, not a Jesuit, asks “May I smoke while I pray?” and is told “No, that would be unseemly.” The second, a Jesuit, asks instead “May I pray while I smoke?” and is awarded with a resounding “Yes, all the better to find God in all things.”

Again, you might worry that if you attend this play it will be too clever for its own good or that you’ll need all sorts of background in 17th century British history or in Shakespeare and the development of Jacobean drama. Fiddlesticks. Worry not. The audience is supplied with whatever background is necessary to understand each scene.

Katie Mallinson, besides being a great director, is what is called a ‘dramaturg.’

Katie Mallinson, besides being a great director, is what is called a “dramaturg.” One of those hard to define jobs in the theater, it includes researching the “backstory” of every element of a play, including why the actors say what they say, wear what they wear, and informing what their inner monologue might be, consistent with the period and action on stage. In other words, dramaturgs have to know EVERYTHING and have to, if I may, “find the WHY in all things.” Hmmmm. Sounds like Jesuits, searching to “find God in all things.” Having recently directed COPENHAGEN up at Niagara University (a play about the friendship of two Nobel Prize winning physicists – Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg) directing another play with clever dialog about deep topics holds no terrors for her.

The costumes by Marie Costa are worth mentioning because, in a play with the same actor playing multiple roles, the costumes have to immediately describe the character, and must go on and come off quickly. Marie Costa’s costumes are a joy.

The set by David King is traditional with Shakespeare stages in that it is unchanging, but quite cleverly designed with an upper level for executions, and a lower level for dungeons implied by an iron grated arched window. Still, with Shakespeare, “the play’s the thing,” not the set.

A little knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays KING LEAR and MACBETH is not necessary but might enhance your enjoyment. Given that both of those plays were offered over the last two summers at Shakespeare in Delaware Park, that’s probably not a problem. And knowing a little bit about the British monarchs is also not at all needed, but might help:

HENRY VIII 1509 – 1547 was the man with six wives of various fates (remember the rhyme “Divorced, Beheaded, Died: Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”). His first wife was Catherine of Aragon, whom he later wanted to divorce. When the Catholic Pope wouldn’t grant him that divorce, Henry created the Church of England, with himself as the head, allowed himself the divorce, married Anne Boleyn, and they had a daughter, Elizabeth. Let’s skip over Edward VI.

MARY I (Bloody Mary) 1553 – 1558 was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. A devout Catholic, she married Philip of Spain and attempted to enforce the conversion of England to Catholicism. This did not go well. It was bloody and upon her death, that initiative stopped. But bad blood remained between the Catholics and the Protestants.

ELIZABETH I 1558-1603 The brilliant daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is the monarch most closely associated with Shakespeare. Outwardly Catholic growing up, she was sympathetic to her father’s Church of England, and during her reign was best known for her tolerance of all religious practices.

JAMES I (James VI of Scotland) 1603 -1625 the son of Mary Queen of Scots was not a religious zealot, but neither was he pro-Catholic, leading to “The Gunpowder Plot” which was the attempt to kill him. Fun facts: it was during James’s reign that we get the KJV – “The King James Bible” – still in use today. However, the Puritans did not like his brand of religion nor the KJV and in 1620 the Pilgrim fathers sailed for America in their ship The Mayflower! See, you DO know more about English history than you thought you did.

For all the reasons we go to live theater including to be entertained, to laugh, to cry, to be challenged, to become better, smarter people, this play delivers on all that and more. As we say in the land of the five buffalos: “You’d be a fool to miss it.”

Lead image courtesy Diane Almeter Jones – Arianne Davidow, Darryl Semira, Chris Avery, Adriano Gatto, Chris Guilmet, Guy Balotine

UP NEXT: A dramatic reading of LITTLE WOMEN, an adaptation by Marian de Forest of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Saturday, June 1, at 3:30 at the Kavinoky Theatre.

And, the Kavinoky has announced their 40th Anniversary Season (2019-2020) which includes the musical HAIRSPRAY, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (yes, it’s back on, in the Aaron Sorkin version currently on Broadway), THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, INDECENT (a play by Paula Vogel in cooperation with Jewish Repertory Theatre), and THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP (2 actors, 8 characters, 35 costume changes, such fun).

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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