William Shakespeare is the central character in Equivocation, Bill Cain’s brilliantly compassionate comedy-drama. But while sitting through David Esbjornson’s vivid production of this important new work at the Geffen Playhouse, a different playwright came into my mind: Tom Stoppard.
Cain’s dazzling creation, which premiered last summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and opens at the Manhattan Theater Club in March, is Stoppardian in its ambition and scope, wit and wordplay, thematic complexity and clever theatricality. It is very much a play of ideas, posing timeless questions that have a particular relevance to our day and age.
Joe Spano, well-known to area theatergoers for his consistently excellent work at the Rubicon (including Buckminster Fuller in a one-man show and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), is the quiet center of the piece. He plays the aging Shakespeare, a man who is starting to lose his enthusiasm for both life and art. Tired of writing revenge plays and other works that conform to established formulas, he’s searching for a way to write something truer and more lifelike.
But that quest will have to wait. As we meet the Bard, Sir Robert Cecil, a top adviser to King James I, is ordering him to write a propaganda piece about a recent plot by Catholic rebels to blow up the Parliament building and kill the king. Cecil envisions it as a work that will unify the nation-and legitimize the rule of the Scottish-born monarch.
Shakespeare has no choice but to accept, but his reservations about the project grow ever greater as he interviews participants in the “plot” and discovers the official version he has been commissioned to write bears very little relation to reality. Worse, from his actors’ point of view, it has no real drama: Parliament doesn’t blow up! How are they supposed to turn this nonevent into crowd-pleasing entertainment?
The playwright’s multi-sided dilemma raises a number of fascinating issues, including the relationship between art and life; the use and misuse of language (like Dick Cheney, King James insists that his government doesn’t torture people, hence any act of brutality committed in his name is not torture); and, most importantly, how to hold onto one’s personal morality under impossible circumstances.
As part of his research, Shakespeare interviews a Jesuit priest implicated in the treasonous plot. The cleric gives the writer a lesson in equivocation, explaining that not all lies are created equal. He also nudges Will into reconciling with his daughter, who-unconsciously and unfairly-bears the brunt of his anger at the death of her brother, his beloved son. Gradually, he begins to accept her back into his life, even as the feminine principles of forgiveness and harmony find their way into his later plays.
With his complex plot and overlapping themes, Cain throws a lot of balls into the air. Fortunately, the Geffen cast is populated with expert jugglers. Most of the actors play multiple roles, and all are quite brilliant, effortlessly navigating the play’s numerous shifts in perspective.
Knowledge of the Shakespearean canon will certainly add to one’s enjoyment of this work, which is full of sly in-jokes. But it’s hardly a prerequisite. The play is rich enough to speak to different people on different levels, and clever enough to entertain even as it poses tough ethical and political dilemmas.
Besides the Spano/Rubicon link, there is one other local connection to Equivocation: Cain workshopped it at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. Whether or not you caught it as a work-in-progress, it’s very much worth the drive to Westwood to check out the finished product. In the words of Will, it’s a hit-a very palpable hit.
Equivocation continues through December 20 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Tickets, which are $25 to $75, can be purchased by calling (310) 208-5454, or at geffenplayhouse.com.