By Jeff Grygny
There’s a telling moment in the first scene of Equivocation, currently playing at Next Act Theater: Richard Burbage, the actor/manager of the King’s Men, the company that Shakespeare writes for, is pulling on his boots after a rehearsal of King Lear, a play which they mockingly describe as “an experimental work where the king runs around in his underwear.” Burbage give his boot a tug and a decisive “zip” sounds in the theater. That moment—no oversight, we can be sure— proclaims exactly where this show is coming from: though it’s set in the Sixteenth Century, it’s very much about today.
Nobody calls anyone “thou,” or “my lord;” there’s none of the elaborate ceremony of aristocracy that was part power display, and part religious ritual. Playwright Bill Cain isn’t interested in those things. He shows Shakespeare (or “Shagspeare,” as he’s called here, apparently a contemporary spelling) as what he manifestly was: a brilliant writer working for a prestigious and profitable theater company. If it was today, he’d be writing series for Netflix, and Mark Ulrich plays him as such, with an ironic manner and a nasal twang. He’s a professional—but first and foremost, he’s an artist.
Cain, who, as a founder of the Boston Shakespeare Company, is steeped in Shakespeare’s work and scholarship, attempts almost hubristically to reproduce in modern sensibility the genetic structure, let’s say, of a Shakespeare play. Cain creates a plot as complex as a Renaissance fencing diagram, with story lines that echo and mirror each other, supporting a webwork of themes all strung together with wordplay that dances in lapidary phrases, hinting at more than they say. It’s a rare play that makes you want to sit down and read the script so you can catch the implications of what everyone’s saying. Equivocation is like that. Heavy? A bit. So we can thank the gods of theater that Cain wraps his story around human passions that anyone can understand: a political/psychological thriller and family drama full of strong sympathetic characters and lifted up with generous helpings of comedy (often wryly directed at Shakespeare’s flaws as a playwright) and an uncanny relevance to current events.
If any director can pull off this Mount Everest of a play, with its sophisticated language and whiplash changes of tone, it’s Michael Cotey, who has proven himself adept both with serio-comedy and dramatic rhythm. Cotey leads his actors in a style that’s often quite farcical— which can sometimes feel like you’re looking at a cartoon composed of aphorisms, or a stained glass window with a few comic panes. The King’s Men come off as a Renaissance Rat Pack. Cotey, who staged this play at Northwestern University not long ago, throws in some wonderful bits of stagecraft, such as when manuscript pages shower down over “Shag” while he tosses off a script that will later be known as Macbeth; or giving us a graphic lesson in the exact meaning of “drawn and quartered.” When the players re-enact scenes from one of the plays, they do it in a vivid “you are there” style that uses sound and lighting effects to re-create the excitement that must have attended their first performances.
It’s even more impressive that the whole thing is performed by only six actors playing multiple roles, often switching characters mid-scene. David Cecsarini gives Ulrich a fine foil as Sir Robert Cecil, a king-maker, and master of intrigue who summons the writer to produce a piece of propaganda to immortalize the king’s triumph over the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot. Cecil seems like a typical irritable administrator—until he starts torturing someone (and we begin to realize exactly what a Bill of Rights is for). Josh Krause is a hoot as King James, a literally entitled frat boy with a Scottish accent, while Eva Nimmer brings heart to her role as Shakespeare’s neglected daughter Judith, acting as something of a chorus to share keen insights into her father’s work, and her own rather dim outlook on the theater and life in general. Jonathan Smoots is extraordinary as Father Henry Garnett, the Jesuit priest who was accused of inciting the Catholic-led plot against England’s Protestant king (the play also makes you want to run to Google and look up the history). Smoots is low-key, subtle, and seemingly unguarded: if anyone in the play understands life, it’s he (Cain is himself a Jesuit priest. Coincidence? Not likely). We see Garnett brilliantly defend himself in a trial scene, after which he reveals to Shakespeare the secret of equivocation: to respond, not to the question asked, but to the hidden question behind it.
If there’s anything missing in this frighteningly intelligent play, it’s the part of Shakespeare that’s rooted in the Renaissance. Brilliant as Cain’s language is, it’s literary in an abstract, modern sense, rather than sensually poetic. In Shakespeare’s world, everything was connected in a great chain of being where lions, heliotropes, topazes, and the sun all resonated with the same angelic frequency, as did all human virtues and weaknesses. To be modern is to not inhabit that cosmos—of which the Globe Theatre itself was but a microcosm. It must also be said that the characters show little variation in voice—unlike Shakespeare, who could evoke a whole life’s history in three lines.
But what Equivocation misses in lyricism, it makes up in the fierce light it shines on our times. It’s hard to hear of Cecil’s attempt to spin a phony narrative without thinking of this week’s headlines. You can see the current president in James’ narcissistic monarch; but even more so the damnable equivocations of the “war on terror” and “enhanced interrogation,” which likely helped inspire this play, which was first performed in 2009.
A play of ideas that’s also massively entertaining, Equivocation strips centuries of dust from Shakespeare, giving urgency to works that might seem like antiques to many people, while at the same time showing how a master artist can walk the razor’s edge between integrity and survival in perilous times. It’s a problem that many artists are struggling with these days. They could do worse than to see this show.
Next Act Theatre presents
By Bill Cain
Directed by Michael Cotey
playing through February 25