Equivocation is a shallow stab at something substantial

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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?

 

Comments (4) Add New Comment
TOS
Unfortunately Colin's lame attempt to appear more high brow than this "low brow" production falls short. Trying to be more clever than intelligent never works. Equivication is about how artists tell the Truth in difficult circumstances, political situations and critics notwithstanding. The point of this play is to make the theoretical dramatic and as an audience member whose desire is always to be challenged as well as entertained, I frankly found this play AND this production had plenty of both and was a welcome relief from the drivel that is usually served up to Vancouver audiences. I dont know whether you have noticed, Colin that life often has way too many narrative threads. That's why it's called life and not theatre. When a play like Bill Cain's serves up too much we have trouble following it. Awww poor us!
Bob finds the character's humanity and Rachel doesn't? How absurd is that as an assertion? This is an ensemble cast that works well together that obviously knows and trusts each another and bring a quality of performance to the Bard stage that makes for good theatre. I seldom disagree with you Colin but this time I feel you missed the mark entirely
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Rating: 0
Shakespeare Lover
This review totally misses the boat. Equivocation is the best piece of theatre I've seen in years. A fantastic production, very well directed with great performances.
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Rating: -3
Another Shakespeare Lover
Ugh! I hated it; it was painful to sit through. Do not see! Bard has never put on a worse production. The acting was good, but the script is all about self-referentiality. A three hour exercise in writerly masturbation. You start to wonder when the hell Shakespeare will write the goddamn play. Will he/Won't he? At the end I didn't care; I just wanted to get the f*ck out of there.
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Rating: +1
Another Another Shakespeare Lover
I agree with "Another Shakespeare Lover"... it was all prancing and yelling and boring dialogue and weak story. It wasn't intriguing... it wasn't even mildly interesting. A real miss. And the temperature in the tent made me sleepy.... A tough show to sit through even with the great popcorn and white wine (which were highlights).
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Rating: +6
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