Rubbing shoulders with the greatest dramatist of all time — at least metaphorically — seems to inspire contemporary playwrights. Consider the film Shakespeare in Love, cowritten by Tom Stoppard, or Amy Freed’s comedy The Beard of Avon, memorably produced at the Garvin Theatre a few years back.
The latest addition to this distinguished group is also the one with the most bite. Equivocation, written by Jesuit priest Bill Cain, tells a story of Shakespeare and his times that contains strong echoes of the controversies, and moral failings, of early 21st-century America. It is, simultaneously, a play about long-ago events and very recent history.
“I understand it has particular appeal for Shakespeare nerds like me,” said Irwin Appel, who is directing the UCSB Department of Theater’s production of the work, which opens Friday night. “But what grabbed me about the play was its visceral electricity. The wit, and the imagination, is phenomenal.”
Appel has been directing a lot of Shakespeare at UCSB, usually as part of the stripped-down, scenery-free series he calls Naked Shakes. The season began with his Macbeth, and next season will kick off with him directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But for now, he’s staging Cain’s 2008 play, in which the Bard is a primary character. Appel saw the world-premiere production of the play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2008; it moved to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles later that year and went to off-Broadway in 2010. “I think it’s one of the best new plays I’ve seen in recent years,” he said flatly. “I was gratified to find the students have also been blown away by it.”
The plot concerns the attempt of Sir Robert Cecil, a top advisor to King James I, to convince the great dramatist to write a propaganda play about the recent plot by Catholic rebels to blow up the Parliament building. In Cain’s telling, Shakespeare reluctantly agrees, but his research reveals that the politics of terror and terrorism aren’t as clear-cut as he initially realized.
“There’s a real contemporary feel to this play,” Appel insisted. “It’s not your traditional period piece. In some ways, it feels very much like an American play to me. It has a grittiness to it. It’s a good, old-fashioned, smart thriller. It has hangings, beheadings, and somebody getting sliced open in the chest.”
How American indeed! The characters of Equivocation engage in a debate over torture that will sound awfully familiar to anyone who was paying attention during the George W. Bush administration. Among many other themes, Cain shows how we use language to justify unjustifiable acts.
But it’s not all grim. There’s also a love story of sorts, between the playwright and his estranged daughter. And on yet another level, Appel notes, it’s a celebration of “the bond of the theater community.” One must serve the king, but the play’s the thing.
UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance presents Equivocation on May 23, 24, 29, and 30 at 8 p.m. and May 31 at 2 and 8 p.m. All performances take place in UCSB’s Hatlen Theater. Call (805) 893-7221 or visit www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.