By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Feb 05, 2018 at 6:46 PM

Next Act’s production of "Equivocation," which opened Friday under the direction of Michael Cotey, is an exercise in truth-telling, especially in difficult times. It is a meditation on the necessity of honest reporting when it comes to matters of politics, religion, history, the limits of our language and our own courage to do so.

The play imagines that England’s new monarch, James I, has commissioned William Shakespeare to write a propaganda play, demonizing Guy Fawkes and a group of young Catholics who allegedly tried to assassinate the king by blowing up parliament in the "Gunpowder Plot." But current events rarely fit nicely into a dramatic narrative, and the "official" version of the traitorous plan has very little to do with what really happened.

So, with the permission of the cooperative venture the King’s Men, William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage’s troupe of actors, the bard begins to write a story that he hopes will satisfy the king, do justice to the rebels behind the murderous plot, satisfy his own need for truth and entertain an audience by presenting real people instead of types. It’s a task he struggles with mightily for the majority of the nearly three-hour play.

Part history lesson filtered through the lens of playwright Bill Cain’s Jesuit calling, part story behind the story à la "Shakespeare in Love" and part portrait of a tired dramatist who fears his best days and best works are behind him, "Equivocation" is jam packed with ideas, conflicts and fractured relationships. But despite the efforts of a very talented cast, these elements don’t coalesce into an engaging, cohesive story with any forward momentum. Instead, the long play, which is presented in scene after scene after scene with the same amount of urgency, feels even longer. Tension is ever present, but it doesn’t build, so at the end of the show there’s no payoff.

This is particularly true for "Shagspeare’s" troubled relationship with his daughter Judith (a pure and youthful Eva Nimmer). Mark Ulrich nicely embodies Shakespeare as a weary writer and failed family man wondering what his legacy will be, if he’ll ever write a truly "great" play and how he can recover from his son Hamnet’s death.

As written, Hamnet’s suriving twin Judith is a thorn in Shagspeare’s side – an eerie reminder of all he lost when his son perished. She is called "scary" by the other actors and seems to be most comfortable with dark scnearios and gloomy stories. In this production, however, Judith is pleasant and helpful, doing her father’s laundry and rescuing his cast-off pages from the fire. Without her consuming sorrow as an unwanted child, the father/daughter reconciliation is severely muted.

The most intriguing character in the play is a Jesuit priest, Henry Garnet, portrayed with gentle and meticulous care by Jonathon Smoots. It is Garnet who tries to restore Shagspeare’s faith in God and expand his understanding of equivocation – answering truthfully to questions underneath the ones that are asked. Josh Krause also earns kudos for capturing the energy and frustration of Sharpe, the newest member of The King’s Men; the pain and pathos of Thomas Wintour, an accused conspirator who has been tortured, almost to death; and the split-second transitions between an actor playing "Macbeth" for King James and the king himself.

Cleverly staged on a scaled down model of Shakespeare’s Globe (scenic design by Sotirios Livaditis), Cotey does use the space well, with actors entering from all sides, playing some scenes from the audience and others in silhouette behind a curtain. Likewise, the violence and torture, which is described in great detail, is presented in a stylized way that makes it bearable to view.

While many themes of this complicated play stand out as particularly relevant in this era of political spin, none of the themes are fully developed. That leaves the audience, as Hamlet would say, with "words, words, words."