19 September 2012

Equivocation, at the Victory Gardens Theatre

Equivocation, by Bill Cain, is nothing if not intellectually meaty: it wrestles with Shakespeare, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, torture, ethics, politics, art, religion, and--as if that weren't enough--the typical stuff of drama: personal relationships. A struggling playwright named Shagspeare is commissioned by the King to write a "true history" of the Gunpowder Plot--a propaganda play. In spite of his misgivings ("we don't do current events"), Shagspeare is strongarmed into it by the King's aide, Robert Cecil, and his own troupe, who see dollar (or pound) signs, and besides--they're sick of rehearsing King Lear.

Bill Cain's often witty script makes us laugh at how contemporaries might have viewed Shakespeare's plays, but its more serious subject matter is how we can be true to ourselves while subject to a power that does not want us to be ourselves. The play's title refers to a pamphlet by a Jesuit priest, Henry Garnet, arguing that you can save your life and not lose your soul (through lying) by determining the real question you are being asked and answering that.

For example: someone comes to the door who clearly wants to kill the king, who is hiding upstairs.  He asks, Is the king here?  If you say yes, the king dies.  If you say no, you're lying and you could go to hell.  Or are you?  Garnet suggests that you're really being asked to give your tacit permission for the king's murder; so if you say no, you are simply refusing permission, not lying. Equivocating.

The play takes us through Shagspeare's research into the plot, his rehearsals and arguments with Cecil and his troupe, and his interviews with alleged conspirators. The play he's writing evolves as he learns more until it becomes something that would get the whole troupe arrested were it performed.  In the end, Shagspeare's daughter suggests that perhaps a reworking of the discarded "Scottish play" would fit the bill, in effect an equivocation satisfies the Scottish king while allowing the Shagspeare to keep his integrity (and his skin).

Director Sean Graney, at the Victory Gardens Theatre, shapes this dense material into a compelling production, and the cast does a great job in multiple roles (and roles within roles), but the play could have used an editor. There's a wonderful sense of profusion in the first hour or so, as multiple threads of plot unwind, but in the last fifteen minutes so many loose ends are tied up that it's hard to keep track.  One of the weakest threads is that of Shagspeare's relationship with his daughter, and unfortunately that is the one with which Cain chooses to frame the story, rendering the end not quite satisfying.

Still, it's a thought-provoking play with many fine moments. 

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