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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In Equivocation now having its New York premiere at Manhatten Theater Club's Stage I after a number of highly touted regional production, Bill Cain has written a play that, to paraphrase the King' s crafty sidekick. attempts to be all things to all theater goers: political thriller, revisionist history play, ethical rumination, family drama, comic spoof, play-within-a-play. It's central character is none other than the Bard himself, here nicknamed Shag.
Cain manages to juggle all these genres into an ingeniously witty yet sad and chilling drama. Director Garry Hynes has streamlined the somewhat convoluted narrative so that it plays out in a well-paced two-hours. Except for John Pankow who plays Shakespeare and Charlotte Parry who plays his daughter starved for his love daughter Judith, the cast deftly handles all the characters the detours from the main plot call for. It's all atmospherically staged on a set with a black wooden floor and black metal walls, evocatively lit to create locales that take us to a government office, a rehearsal hall, a prison and an execution chamber.
But caveat emptor!
Unless you come to the theater brushed up on your Shakespeare, you're likely to miss the on target allusions in Shag and Cecil's interchanges and the actors' backstage business, as well the ties to King Lear and Macbeth in some of the several plays within the rather convoluted main story. And so, Equivocation is not all things to all theater goers but a play that will resonate most strongly with Shakespeare savvy audiences. No matter how well prepared you are and for all that much of Equivocation is great fun, close attention must be paid to avoid getting confused by the constant shifts between the main plot amd the various plays within it.
What about the 1605 Gunpowder Plot that's the play's foundation stone? Cain's take on this is not all that hard to follow. Just get there early enough to read the timeline and synopsis posted in the lobby and helpfully inserted into the program. The main thing to know is that it happened in 1605, a year before Macbeth was first performed, and that it was spawned by the religious strife dividing England that led Guy Fawkes and his cronies to devise a plan to blow up the Parliament. With the conspirators imprisoned or already dead, King James has, according to Cain's script, penned a document about how his govenment intercepted the plot. As the play opens the king's right-hand man Cecil demands that Shakespeare turn into a regime friendly play.
It is how Shakespeare and his acting co-op, which operates under the King's patronage, deal with this unwanted commission, that's Cain's plot pivot and basis to philosophize about how difficult it can be to putg truth before equivocation and being true to oneself. You don't have to be an ace detective to recognize that the Gunpowder Plot and the painful to watch torture scenes resemble much more recent tragic events.
In his main role as the crippled Robert Cecil, David Pittu is a villain to be reckoned with — dangerous, sly and yet terrifically amusing in his sharp assessment of Shakespeare's linguistic skills (which includes his recognizing and appreciating Shakespeare's depiction of his father as Hamlet's Polonius).
John Pankow is incredibly natural and sympathetic as the famous writer browbeaten into trying to deliver the play Cecil commissioned yet trying to hang on to his artistic integrity. Pankow captures the man from every angle so that we see his professional frustrations and insecurities, his idealistic humanity as well as his flaws as a family man. The comic scenes between Shag and his opinionated actors are the play's highlights, but the laughs give way to darkness as, in an effort to make the Gunfire play work, he does first hand research that bring him face to face with the imprisoned conspirators and intensifies his struggle to write truthfully.
Michael Countryman is excellent as Shag's partner and best friend Richard, as well as the doomed priest Garnet. David Furr is a triple threat, most notably so as Sharpe, the vain and ambitious junior member of the group. Remy Auberjonois also does well by three roles — Armin, Robert Catesby and Sir Edward Coke.
Though the actors blow off the Gunpowder story for Macbeth, Cecil's demand for witches to be included is met. And the resulting witches scene is a Wow!
Lingering around the edges of all this action is Shag's daughter Judith. played with poignancy and charm by Charlotte Perry. Her relationship with her father provides the family drama subplot — the estrangement and reconciliation of father and daughter. Judith knows that her father can barely tolerate her because she is a constant reminder of the twin brother whose death he still mourns. But she persists in hanging around him — doing the actors' laundry, tidying up and, most importantly, saving manuscript pages he's tossed out as "mental excrement." Her cynicism is a way of coping with rejection, and Cain's way of making her a wry commentator on Shakespeare's style and choice of stories. Peripheral to the main action as she is, Judith literally gets the last word as she sums up her father's s final plays: "a father throws away his daughter. And nothing will ever be right until he gets her back."
The many meanings of Shakespeare's plays and his rich dialogue have helped them to endure not for the fifty years predicted by Robet Cecil, but for centuries. Bill Cain may not be another Shakespeare, but he's no slouch when it comes to crafting intricate, smartly written and thought provoking plays.