by Charles Marowitz
Equivocation, by Bill Cain, at the Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles, CA.
(Swans - November 30, 2009) Bill Cain's Equivocation is an imaginative creation of an imaginary event in Shakespeare's life when a number of religious rebels hatched the so-called Gunpowder Plot intended to destroy the ruling hierarchy of England and specifically King James lst. A tale that every English child is taught in their early school years and is annually celebrated on November 5th when Guy Fawkes, one of the minor leaders of the conspiracy, is fiendishly burned in effigy.
Shaxpere (one of the early unique spellings of the playwright's name) is summoned by a royal appointee who clearly resembles Richard the Third with all his clichéd physical detriments (hunchback, withered arms, maimed leg) enforcing a commission upon the playwright -- namely, to write a play dramatizing the conspiracy against the Scottish King whose antagonism against Protestants, Puritans, and other recusants triggered the attempted insurrection.
The body of the play dramatizes the Bard's resistance to create a dramatic history lesson of the event from which King James will emerge triumphant and historically justified. Much of Cain's play illustrates his forced acquiescence to this command and how it is played out among the players of the Kings Men at the Globe. The actors, who are terrified of giving offense to the unpredictable monarch, are eventually persuaded and the ultimate product culminates, of course, into Macbeth, which many scholars have suggested was inspired by the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and the actions of King James following the frustrated revolution.
After the culprits of the Gunpowder Plot were severely tortured and then, like Guy Fawkes, hung, drawn, and quartered, an elaborate justification for the executions was widely disseminated, both to terrify the non-believers and to glorify the loyalists -- a situation reminiscent of the Bush policies on torture in Guantánamo and elsewhere; and it was the similarity between the 17th century events and our recent imbroglios in Iraq and Afghanistan that inspired the writing of Equivocation. In describing his inspiration for the play, prodded by a visit to the Tower of London, author Bill Cain explains in a program note: "I wanted to write one word as true as a last wish hammered into a prison wall by a man trying to be true to his conscience in the last days of his life. The effort turned out to be not one word, but many. It turned out to be the play Equivocation, the story of 'how to tell the truth in difficult times' -- based on real events and real people of almost exactly 400 years ago -- living in times very similar to our own."
Wisely, Cain decided to frame the play in contemporary American diction with salient excerpts from King Lear, Richard III, Merchant of Venice and, of course, Macbeth sparkling out like bubbles in a glass of champagne and, in most instances, at apt times in the imposed narrative.
The play is probably the most stimulating and exciting classical rip-off I have seen in over twenty years of playgoing on Los Angeles stages. Cain, who was the director of the Boston Shakespeare Company for seven years, is so immersed in the Bard's work and speculates so tellingly about the little biography we have of him, that it is an intellectual pleasure to follow hunches and ruminations about Will -- even though we know they are fancy and not fact. But more impressive still is the way in which he threads the make-believe plot around the historical event with such mastery that we are carried away by the fiction. It raises tantalizing questions. What should William Shakespeare do after the horrors of the Gunpowder Plot had just taken place being, as several scholars have speculated, the son of a Puritan and possibly himself a secret Protestant? And what would King James feel about the inferences the play possessed to the serious threat both to his life and reign? A playwright in the 17th century would have to tread very carefully. It is a tantalizing puzzle and it makes us look at the old war-horse Macbeth in a completely new light. But you don't have to be up on British history to appreciate the nuances that Cain's play releases into the bloodstream of a contemporary public's imagination. The play is charged with the quality that we so rarely get from a theatrical performance, even from specimens of the canon itself -- intellectual stimuli -- a way of being challenged by a dramatic parallel that fits neatly over the skin of an overdone classic.
The structure of the play creaks a little in the second act where it produces a sense of anti-climax, a certain overload of material that doesn't move it forward towards a natural climax but circles around ideas already treated. The acceptance of the Globe company's decision to get on with the playwright's Macbeth despite all the dangers feels like it should be a final resolution but leads to rehashes about the involvement of figures such as Father Henry Garnet, who because of his inability to reveal what had been told him in confessionals, places the cleric in mortal danger. It needs something like ten to fifteen minutes extracted from the second act, but its conclusion -- the hanging of Father Garnet and Judith Shakespeare's wrapping her father in a winding sheet -- almost makes up for these longeurs.
The cast of six has responded dynamically to director David Esbjornson's direction and his mise en scene is a startling example of inventive simplicity -- openly making scene-changes in front of our eyes and constantly reminding us that although we are in a make-believe historical context, we are also in a theatre where less is so often more. The set design is also by director Esbjornson and it is a marvel of simplicity that reveals as much imagination as the actors who tangle and untangle themselves in its changing netscapes.
Ultimately, the power of Equivocation lies in the incisive correlation between the l7th century attitude towards both religious freedom and despotism. And as such, it provides an object lesson to a world in which religions have become tools of war and, consequently, a threat and not a comfort.
I salute the individual members of the outstanding cast at the Geffen Playhouse that have magically transformed a company into an ensemble, and that too is a rarity in the contemporary theatre. They are Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario, Harry Groener, Brian Henderson, Joe Spano, and Connor Trinneer. It is rare to see a squad of half a dozen players deftly execute a challenging new play that consistently stimulates the mind. Whenever Macbeth is next revived, it will be trailing the insights and implications of Bill Cain's speculations.
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