Role compression muddles Shakespeare in Equivocation; the Ephrons dress for success in Love, Loss, and What I Wore | Theater | Indy Week
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Role compression muddles Shakespeare in Equivocation; the Ephrons dress for success in Love, Loss, and What I Wore 

Jim O'Brien in Equivocation

Photo courtesy of Stephen J. Larsen

Jim O'Brien in Equivocation

Bill Cain was a playwright with a problem. His 2009 drama EQUIVOCATION was an intriguing inquiry into how artists ethically respond to the politics of their time, in a speculative history of Shakespeare's relationships with King James I and Sir Robert Cecil, his Machiavellian chief minister. Its two acts not only examined artists' conflicting responsibilities to their colleagues, their families and their art; it managed as well to raise some prickly questions about the theater's relationship to the truth.

But Equivocation also had 13 primary characters in it—a number, in the modern economics of the theater, that would make it much less attractive to potential producers. (Yes, successful contemporary plays with as many characters or more come to mind, including August: Osage County and A Few Good Men. But Cain didn't want to chance it.)

Moreover, that 13 already contained a significant compromise. Shakespeare's own theatrical troupe, The King's Men, had been cut to just five actors, ostensibly staging King Lear and Macbeth.

Even with that cut, Cain deemed there were still too many characters for Equivocation to be commercially viable.

So he doubled, tripled and quadrupled some of the roles, cutting the cast by more than half, to six—by which time, someone really should have said something, for those were the cuts that went too far.

Yes, playwrights and companies have routinely doubled up on roles from Shakespeare's time to ours. Indeed, the draw in plays like Stones in His Pockets and Greater Tuna comes from gifted actors repeatedly shifting between multiple and convincing quick-change characters on stage.

Underline the word convincing in that last sentence, since it's the difficulty director Jerry Sipp and his actors don't—and arguably, cannot—overcome in this Theatre in the Park production.

Sipp and actor Jason Hassell's take on Cecil is too sniveling to truly get at the utter ruthlessness of a man many believe was the real-life inspiration for Shakespeare's Richard III. Still, we're prepared to go with Hassell's doubling as Nate, an actor and shareholder in The King's Men. We'll even indulge a set of cinematic, if theatrically dysfunctional, flashbacks where Cecil suddenly appears at the edge of scenes he isn't in to reiterate portentous earlier lines after plot twists are revealed.

But then Preston Campbell has to play Sharpe, the actor playing Macduff in the first ever production of Macbeth, in the same scene he plays a childish King James I, who is sitting in the audience. Campbell whirls back and forth as Cain makes those two characters trade lines in one particularly graceless sequence. Then James I takes the stage, while Macbeth is still in process. Beyond that point, who's on first is anyone's guess.

As a scene, it's one hot mess, a muddy blur in which disbelief is not suspended but shattered. With the addition of one more actor, it could have been avoided.

That is regrettable, given the insights and issues Cain takes on. After Shakespeare's daughter Judith (acerbic Kelly McConkey) asks, "How could there be anything true about a play," Cecil compliments—and critiques—the man from Stratford to the bone: "You make [audiences] happy, but not so happy as to make them reject their unhappiness. You make them angry, but not so angry as to inspire action. You reduce all of reality to spectacle, making action unnecessary, even impossible. You are the perfect civil religion."

Though Daniel Murphy seems too young in the roles of Armin and Catesby, Jim O'Brien's Shakespeare ably struggles between practicality and ethics throughout the work, and Mark Phialas brings gravitas to Richard Burbage, the senior member of The King's Men and Father Henry Garnet.

Gingy (a wise Bunny Safron) knows it's simple to draw herself. Two stacked rectangles: a longer bottom one for the skirt and a shorter one for the blouse on top. Draw an egg above them for the head; three lines for legs. And the face? Sideways letter c's for closed eyes; a capital L for the nose and a lowercase w for the mouth.

But the meanings of those clothes—and the changing human forms they adorn—take longer to disclose in Nora and Delia Ephron's LOVE, LOSS, AND WHAT I WORE. This adaptation expands Ilene Beckerman's best-selling personal history and handmade picture book of her lifetime's most significant garments into a mirthful and moving cross-generation colloquy among 29 women.

In this nimble reader's theater production from Actor's Comedy Lab and NRACT, an all-star cast articulates women's complex relationships with shoes, bras, purses—and their own bodies. Alison Lawrence's character wryly notes the misfortune of being the daughter of the most competent human alive, after Kirsten Ehlert's adolescent girl amusingly suffers a mother's unsuitable fashion advice. More than one of Page Purgar's characters remain conflicted on their self-perceived beauty, and the women in Amy Bossi-Nasiatka's most poignant vignettes cope believably with homophobia and breast cancer.

Given the Ephrons' penchant for disclosing the issues that clothing brings up, Love, Loss, and What I Wore qualifies as a warm, witty—and fabric-based—answer to The Vagina Monologues. Well worth seeing.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Character Assassination."

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