I‘m having a hard time coalescing my thoughts about Bill Cain’s new play, “Equivocation.”
Enjoyable, yes. Easy, not so much.
An anachronistic, erudite visit with William Shakespeare and what he might have called “The Old Globe Gang,” the play begins with an order issued by King James I for a new drama to establish the “true history” of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This act of treason, an attempt to blow up The Houses of Parliament and the King and return England to its “true faith,” Catholicism, was a failure, but a colorful one. It remains in the public memory as Guy Fawkes Day, which the Brits still observe with bonfires and fireworks every Nov. 5. In actuality, however, the treasonous plot had been fabricated by the King’s (Protestant) partisans to provide a rationale for confiscating the property of the Church and executing certain “enemies of the Crown.”
Now, as true in the 17th century as it is in the 21st, that “history is written by the winners,” King James’ chief advisor (read “Dick Cheney”), Sir Robert Cecil, has been sent with specific directives for Shakespeare’s new historical play.
The commission presents Shakespeare with an ethical dilemma: How to maintain his integrity while rewriting history to please a monarch who has just had the audacity to rewrite the Bible in his own name. Thus, equivocation, defined in the dictionary as “a statement that is not literally false but that cleverly avoids an unpleasant truth.” Or, as put succinctly by the character of Father Henry Garnet, “telling the truth in difficult times.” The secret, according to Garnet, is not to answer the question asked, but the one that will follow. For example, if a soldier comes to your door and asks if you are harboring a criminal, the “truthful” answer might be “yes.” But the answer to the next question, “Will you let me inside to arrest him?” is “no.” Thus, he sums up, “equivocation is telling the truth but not getting caught at it.”
Telling the absolute truth while rewriting history, however, becomes, for Shakespeare, a question of “your King or your soul.” Even though his daughter Judith remarks sardonically, “How can there be anything true in a play!” and Father Henry Garnet assures him that, if there is blood, “it will wash.”
Meanwhile, each of Shakespeare’s players morph back and forth from his historical contemporaries to the actors portraying characters in his plays. Harry Groener, for example, plays Richard Burbage, a famous actor in Shakespeare’s company, who plays King Lear and Macbeth onstage. Groener also plays Father Henry Garnet, a true character who was hanged for his supposed role in the actual Gunpowder Plot. In short, each actor plays multiple parts, often using Shakespeare’s very words to define and amplify their opinions.
If all this sounds confusing, you can’t imagine how convoluted it gets when Shakespeare (the always excellent Joe Spano) begins a diatribe about political strategies, terrorism, and torture that reverberates as a virtual denunciation of current policies in 21st century America. “You can’t legislate soul into a country,” he asserts. “For that, you need a story.” Or, as in America’s current situation, “to reduce all reality to spectacle.”
Playwright Bill Cain was once a Jesuit priest, a juggler, and the founder and artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company. His previous plays, “Stand-Up Tragedy” and “Thicker Than Blood,” have won numerous awards and he has won a Peabody Award for Outstanding Achievement in Television for the ABC series “Nothing Sacred.” “Equivocation,” which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival earlier this year, has been trimmed and tweaked a bit for its current production at the Geffen Playhouse and is currently being produced in theaters around the country.
In the Los Angeles production, in addition to Joe Spano and Troian Bellisario, as Shakespeare (called here “Shag”) and his daughter Judith, the cast includes Patrick J. Adams, Harry Groener, Brian Henderson and Connor Trinneer. They march to the beat of David Esbjornson, director and set designer, who could have provided the production with a little more clarity and a less boring set. Frances Kenny’s costumes, Scott Zielinski’s lighting, and Jon Gottlieb’s sound design, however, match the fervor and intensity of the acting. And, if you are well versed in your Shakespeare, there are even a few laughs! All in all, a must-see for Shakespeare buffs and a worthwhile entertainment for the rest of us.
“Equivocation” will continue at The Geffen Playhouse Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through Dec. 20. The Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood. Phone (310) 208-5454 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at email@example.com.