William Shakespeare wrote 39 plays, but he didn't leave behind much to reveal the details of the parts he played before his exit from the world's stage. The mystery that is Shakespeare leaves open vast possibilities for writers to imagine his life, from Oscar-winner "Shakespeare in Love," to children's books like "The Shakespeare Stealer" and "King of Shadows."
Now Del Rey Players, LMU's student-run theater group, are taking on one of those recent interpretations that not only brings its audience into the Globe Theatre but also reaches into the early history of the Jesuits at a dangerous time for Catholics in England - 1605. Their production of "Equivocation," written by Fr. Bill Cain, S.J., opens on Thursday as part of this year's Bellarmine Forum.
The Del Rey Players will be the first non-professional theater group to perform the play, which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in 2009.
"Equivocation" takes place in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, a failed assassination of King James I many will know of from its part in "V for Vendetta" ("Remember, remember the fifth of November..."). A Jesuit priest was accused of being one of the plotters. Cain imagines what would have happened if King James' right-hand man, Robert Cecil, had commissioned Shakespeare to write a propaganda-infused play about the plot. It's a play that touches on topics just as hot today as they were 400 years ago - politics, religion and more.
"We got very excited about Shakespeare meeting a Jesuit in a prison. That alone is a great plot," said English professor and Bellarmine Forum co-organizer KJ Peters, who approached the Del Rey Players this summer about doing a production for the symposium.
Peters told the Players about "Equivocation" after learning of it from rector of LMU Jesuits Fr. Robert Scholla, S.J., who saw the play in its first run at OSF, and from theatre arts professor Kevin Wetmore. Peters was immediately interested in the script but was doubtful that LMU could get the rights to perform such a new and successful play.
"That was a complete prayer because Bill Cain had no reason to help us," Peters said. "We got a fee for the rights we could afford [from Cain's representatives], and we were stunned."
A Jesuit university has become the first non-professional host to a critically-acclaimed play written by a Jesuit about a Jesuit priest. And more milestones are stacked on as the expanded Bellarmine Forum - which this year looks to the future of education, faith and justice - celebrates LMU's 100th anniversary and the Players celebrate its 80th.
Needless to say, the pressure was on.
"We were told by the higher-ups ... ‘You need to knock this out of the park,'" said "Equivocation" assistant director Caitlin Bryson, a senior theatre arts major and the artistic director of Del Rey Players.
"But once we stepped back from the original stress from it, we knew that even if we had not been the first non-professional group and had not done it with Bellarmine Forum, we still would have given everything we had to it. In that sense, it's sort of business as usual - but with the knowledge it's bigger," said the play's director, Thomas Wickboldt, a junior theatre arts major.
The play features Cain's take on historical figures such as Shakespeare - named Shag in "Equivocation" from the alternate spelling "Shagspeare" - Cecil, King James, Shakespeare's daughter Judith, star actor Richard Burbage and Henry Garnet, the jailed Jesuit. Playing all of these characters is a young cast of freshmen and sophomores. Many upperclassmen were already involved in the theatre arts program's current plays, but it also just so happened that the best auditions came from those newer to LMU. It's proven to be just what the production needed.
"The thing I'm enjoying about having an underclassman cast is that they're so enthusiastic, and they're so excited," Bryson said. "There's a certain level of complacency that occasionally happens when it's ‘OK, it's just another show.'"
The cast's devotion to the project displayed itself during a build day on Sept. 18, as the cast and crew worked on the set in North Hall. Throughout the Sunday break from the Monday through Saturday, 7 to 11 p.m. rehearsals, the cast members were running their lines.
"I had never seen [Del Rey Players actors do] this before in my life," Wickboldt said.
Del Rey Players board member Joe Hospodor, a junior theatre arts major, walked into the theater and said to Wickboldt and Bryson, "You guys are making them run lines on their day off?" Bryson told him, "No, they're doing it on their own!"
The production presented challenges not uncommon to actors, like speaking in foreign accents and believably playing the antagonist as something more than simple evil. Tackling the latter task, sophomore theatre arts and political science double major Patrick Buchanan took on the Cecil character in a way Bryson hadn't expected before the auditions.
"I'd been picturing him as very pompous and Sir Ian McKellen-y, and Patrick came in and read, and I was ‘That's totally Cecil.' What I was thinking was totally wrong," Bryson said. "He looks at Shag and you can tell that he's manipulating, and he knows every move Shag is about to make. He's in control of everything. I don't know how Patrick does it."
The script is written in modern English, and the actors perform it with their own American accents, except for freshman undeclared major Erik Reedy, who had to learn a Scottish accent for King James. Having done screen acting for small-budget and student projects in high school, he had used an accent in every project he'd done, but never a Scottish one.
"I thought [a Scottish accent] would be easy, but it was actually the hardest accent I've done," said Reedy, who worked with dialect coach Andrea Fuller, a theatre arts professor, for the part.
"Equivocation" also presented a less common challenge to its young cast: Playing not just a few characters, but lots of characters in the scope of one play. There are 38 characters played by six actors - 36 of them by four actors, as freshman theatre arts major Gabriel Gonzalvez plays only Shag and sophomore theatre arts and history double major Emily Ludlow plays only Judith.
Wickboldt said that the small actors to characters ratio could make switching between roles difficult at times, but Cain's intricate script actually helped make it less of a challenge.
"It's written in such a way that [in] the scenes where we see the plotters, you're seeing a flashback, but you're also seeing a rehearsal [of the Globe actors]. There is a blurring between actor and character. That in a way helps when they're switching because it's not a 100 percent transformation," Wickboldt said.
But the often warp-speed nature of the play also demanded creativity for the costume changes strategy. At one point during a rehearsal last week, freshman English major Patrick Sullivan stopped and said, "Oh, I have to be a lawyer - I shouldn't have a priest outfit on, should I?"
Costume designer Ashley Donnert, a senior theatre arts major, put together a base attire for each actor, using items rented from Make Believe Inc. Costumes. To switch from character to character, actors change out pieces like hats, pins, doublets and sashes.
The production is period referential, alluding to the 17th century with minimal costumes and set pieces, but the Del Rey Players made sure that the production's story was true to the period and that they understood its history, with the help of Wetmore and Scholla. Wetmore consulted with Bryson and Wickboldt about the historical background of the play's story and also choreographed the fight scenes. In a short presentation, Scholla spoke to the cast and crew about the history of the Jesuits in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
"He was very a genial guy, very open. He sat with us, talked with us, allowed us to ask any questions we wanted to," Gonzalvez said.
For the special occasion, Scholla arrived in North Hall wearing jeans and a T-shirt bearing a picture of Shakespeare in sunglasses and the words "Rebel with applause."
"I intentionally wore a T-shirt that I have that is only worn usually in the quiet of the Jesuit Community," Scholla said.
Scholla also assisted the cast with the pronunciation of the play's Latin lines and taught sophomore theatre arts major Rechard Francois, who plays Garnet, about the gestures and the mannerisms 17th century Jesuits used in such practices as blessing food.
"The fact that the Del Rey Players are going to do this is really heroic. It's a tough play," Scholla said.
Del Rey Players adviser Lydia Ammossow also pointed out how challenging the play is, saying, "It is an artistic endeavor. The students' passion is unwavering, and they've taken it on with full gusto."
Several involved in the production noted that it is a witty, intelligent play that also challenges its audience. Just as much a window into the past as a mirror to the present, "Equivocation" speaks to such modern issues as treatment of prisoners of war and how the Western world characterizes Muslims, as Cain subtly reveals how similar the Gunpowder Plot's aftermath is to that of 9/11. It is a play that the Del Rey Players hopes gets the audience thinking.
"What I'd like people to walk away with is Shag's search for truth and defining truth and not just taking what you're given as truth," Wickboldt said. "You have to search it out for yourself."