March 10, 2010

Why "Equivocation" Rings True for Me

Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies and histories.  In the new play Equivocation, Bill Cain attempts the hat trick of doing all three at the same time.  And he almost pulls it off.

Equivocation, which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year and is currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club through March 28, is billed as an imaginary account of how Shakespeare produced Macbeth. But it’s also a backstage comedy about The King’s Men, the troupe of actors who first performed the Bard’s plays.  And it’s a historical drama about Shakespeare’s alleged connection to the Gunpowder Plot in which a group of pro-Catholic conspirators tried to blow-up the Protestant King James I.  Plus it’s a family drama about Shakespeare’s relationship with his children. But ultimately, as its name suggests, it’s a philosophical rumination on the meaning of truth.  

That’s a lot to pack into a two-hour play. And it can be difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on. It helps if you’re knowledgeable about British history and well-versed in Shakespeare.  My friend Ellie, the former actress who now writes poetry and teaches literature, is familiar with both.  She—and another woman who I took to be equally erudite—kept laughing out loud at references that brought only bemused smiles from other audience members like me.  And yet, I like this play and not just because I’m an acknowledged whore for stuff about the Tudor-era. 

Cain, who founded the Boston Shakespeare Company, knows a lot about Shakespeare but he’s also smart enough to know that a play needs to engage as well as inform
(click here to watch a YouTube video in which he talks about the genesis of the show). So he’s found ways to amuse and even flatter those of us less literary than Ellie.  He makes Equivocation accessible with colloquial dialog, spiced up with just enough 17th century phrases for period flavoring. He throws in some easy-to-get jokes about Shakespeare:  when a character complains about the soliloquies in the plays, it’s in a soliloquy.

The production team does it part too.  Francis O’Connor has come up with a sleek set that morphs easily from the throne room, to a dungeon in the Tower of London to the stage at the Globe.  And his contemporary costumes—black jeans and dark t shirts—accessorized by period pieces like doublets are chic enough that the actors could wear them home.  David Weiner’s lighting and the sound design by David Van Tieghem and Brandon Wolcott make significant contributions too.

But the most credit goes to the production’s game six-member cast, four of whom double and triple in roles.  In more flush times, additional actors might have played the smaller parts but that would have denied the audience a delightful scene in the second act in which the appealing David Furr plays two characters nearly simultaneously. But all the actors get—and take advantage of—their time to shine. Particularly David Pittu who bites into the role of Sir Robert Cecil, the wily, Richard III-like (limp and all) minister to the king, who sets the plot in motion when he commissions Shakespeare to write a play about the recently aborted assassination plot.

The one disappointment is John Pankow’s Shakespeare, who for some unexplained reason is called Shag in the show. Ellie thought his tepid approach may have been intentional, designed to show how little we truly know about Shakespeare but I found myself wondering if Pankow had gotten the part primarily because he has a large Shakespearean forehead. 

He’s not the only thing in the show that misses the mark.  There are so many storylines that despite the bravura work by director Garry Hynes, some of them get tangled and others simply dangle. But this play does find a way to refract our contemporary anomie through the lens of an equally unsettling period in the past. And that is true enough accomplishment for me.

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