November 23, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Unequivocally gay

‘Equivocation’
Through Jan. 1
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, SW
$40-$80
202-488-3300
arenastage.org

Bill Rauch, director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, brought his company’s ‘Equivocation’ to Washington for a collaboration with Arena Stage. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bill Rauch openly admits he has a gay agenda.

“Of course I do,” he says. “As a gay man I want to see LGBT lives reflected on the stage. For me it’s all part of the human experience.”

While “Equivocation” — the political thriller he’s brought to Arena Stage from the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival where Rauch is artistic director — features a gay British monarch, it was the work’s clarity, force and theatricality that first caught his attention. “It’s a period piece that’s entirely contemporary in language and the way it explores the overlapping of politics, religion and art. As I read the script for the first time my heart began pounding harder and harder. That doesn’t happen very often.”

Set in 1604 London, playwright Bill Cain’s smart and entertaining play follows William “Shagspeare” and his theatrical troupe as they struggle to complete a royal commission about the Gunpowder Plot that both pleases King James I and isn’t entirely untrue. With six actors playing about 30 roles in several plays within the play, this darkly funny backstage story covers a lot of relevant territory including power, politics, religion, national security, terrorism, theater, father/daughter relationships, friendships and honesty.

A first-time collaboration between the Festival and Arena, “Equivocation” reunites the top-notch original cast (lead by Broadway actor Anthony Heald as Shag) and creative team from its 2009 world premiere production.

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The last time Rauch worked at Arena was in 1993 when he staged “A Community Carol,” an inner-city take on the Dickens’ Christmas classic featuring a large cast of professional and nonprofessional local actors. Though the venture was risky, it proved both a critical and commercial success. It was also indicative of the work Rauch was doing with his then-troupe Cornerstone Theater Company (which co-produced the show).

Rauch attended Harvard where he majored in English and was heavily involved in campus theatrics. Shortly after graduating, he and some college friends including his now husband, actor/director Christopher Liam Moore, founded Cornerstone in 1986. Initially operating out of Rauch’s parents’ home in Northern Virginia, the company eventually traveled the country creating theater by collaborating with locals, typically in small communities. Since 1992, the company has been based in Los Angeles.

“It was a great run, but after 20 years with Cornerstone I was ready to move on. I became curious to know another kind of bigger theater. (Based in Ashland, Ore., the Festival is among the oldest and largest professional non-profit theaters in the nation and operates on a $30 million budget). He was named artistic director in 2007.

At the Festival, Rauch has gained a reputation for expanding the company’s scope, taking artistic chances and being an all-around nice guy. His staging efforts include an urban America 1970s-set “Measure for Measure.” The male actor who played Mistress Overdone, the brothel madam, portrayed her as a preoperative transsexual. She lands in jail where she is stripped naked and revealed to be a biological male. “It was an intense moment in the play,” he says. “For the character it’s a shameful experience. Some of the audience laughed. Others cried. There was a lot of discomfort.”

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Together 27 years, Rauch and Moore (who acts and directs at the Festival) have two sons, aged 11 and 6. They’re entirely different, says Rauch. The older loves sports and cars. He’s “all boy” (a term that Rauch loathes but deems apt nonetheless) and the younger is very much into everything princess. In fact, he regularly wore a princess gown to pre-school for two years. Both fathers are perfectly happy to allow their kids to express themselves in whatever way they choose, and fortunately, Rauch notes, Ashland is a progressive town.

Part of what drew Rauch to Arena is his longtime friendship with artistic director Molly Smith. In ways, he’s viewed her career trajectory — from small innovative company to important regional theater — as a template for his own. For some time, the pair had discussed Rauch brining something from the Festival to D.C.

“While I would have been proud to bring any of our productions to Arena, I’m glad it’s ‘Equivocation.’ The play is bottomless. There’s always something more to uncover. And it’s very political — that’s what makes it an especially good fit for Washington.”

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