By Bill Cain. Directed by Michael Shamata. Produced by Bard on the Beach and Victoria’s Belfry Theatre. On the Howard Family Stage at Bard on the Beach on Thursday, July 10. Continues in rep until September 19
You could define middlebrow art as a shallow stab at something substantial. That would pretty much cover Bill Cain’s Equivocation.
Cain’s script, which premiered at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, imagines King James commissioning a character called William Shagspeare—guess who—to write a play that tells the true story of the Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and others tried to blow up parliament, King James I, and his family in 1605. Shagspeare is sympathetic to the Catholic rebels’ argument that the Church of England is a giant justification of Henry VIII’s lust, but championing that position would lead to torture and death. Besides, Shagspeare and his company depend on the king for their livelihoods. Equivocation is meant to be about how artists attempt to tell the truth in difficult circumstances.
But Cain’s exploration of his subject is so obvious it hurts. “You don’t want a play,” Shagspeare says to Sir Robert Cecil, the king’s representative and Shagspeare’s antagonist, “you want a propaganda story. I don’t do propaganda.” The notion that Shagspeare, who is credited with writing all of Shakespeare’s plays, wants to tell the simple truth for once in his life is ridiculously reductive; Shakespeare negotiated tricky political terrain every time he wrote a history play, and there’s a great deal more complexity in the literary results than there is in Cain’s play, in which Cecil declares, “Everything’s for sale,” and Shagspeare retorts with all of the sophistication of a 14-year-old Boy Scout: “I am not!”
Equivocation also gets lost in dumbed-down versions of Shakespeare’s insights regarding human capacity. “I think we’re all fools, and all royals, and all noble,” Shagspeare says. “And the terrifying thing is we get to pick.” He starts to sound like Oprah being quoted on a coffee cup. Similarly gag-inducing statements about theatre abound: “Truth defies dramatic formula”; “Uniformity is the death of drama.” My complaint isn’t that these assertions are untrue; it’s that they’re theoretical—and undramatic. Act 1 of Equivocation is boring because it spends most of its time in the land of bald, obvious ideas.
Partly because of that and partly because it has far too many narrative threads, the play’s exploration of relationships is shallow. Story lines about Shagspeare’s daughter Judith, artistic and political intrigue within the acting company, and Shagspeare’s interactions with various rebels scatter attention. And the core interaction between Shagspeare and Cecil is flat because Cecil is a two-dimensional bad guy.
The jokes tend toward easy flippancy. When Shagspeare’s company performs Macbeth, Macduff’s assertion that he “was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” is accompanied by the comment “That’s poetry for caesarian section.”
Fortunately, Bob Frazer, who plays Shagspeare, finds the character’s humanity: Shagspeare’s ongoing grief over the death of his son, Judith’s twin, is moving. And double-cast as King James and a gifted young actor named Sharpe, Anton Lipovetsky is inspiringly bold. His James is so wacky yet so calculating that he’s always engaging. Gerry Mackay brings gravitas to the actor Burbage and to a rebel priest named Garnet.
Others aren’t as successful. Anousha Alamian does a serviceable job as Cecil, but he’s not charismatic. It’s hard to hear Rachel Cairns’s Judith, and Shawn Macdonald simply overacts as an actor named Armin and the prosecutor Sir Edward Coke.
Act 2 of Equivocation is better than Act 1, but there are real Shakespearean plays at Bard on the Beach this summer. Why waste time with flimsy speculation?