By Ruth Ross
What is the role of theater? Artistic? Political? Social? A mirror of real life or something fanciful? And whose purpose does it serve? These weighty questions are the heart of Bill Cain's intelligent comic drama, Equivocation, in its exhilarating New Jersey premiere at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.
An antidote to the manic Broadway musical, Something Rotten, Equivocation posits a situation in which a playwright named Shagspeare, a member of a "cooperative company" of actors at the Globe Theatre is commissioned (read: ordered) to write a play about The Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by a group of men who cling to the "old religion" (Catholicism) to blow up Parliament and the new King, James, by tunneling under the building and placing 36 barrels of gunpowder in a room below. The problem: Shag is unconvinced that the plot ever happened (too many details remain unexplained) and balks at writing what is essentially propaganda for the Crown. His reasons, however, are more artistic than political—at least at first. For one thing, nothing happened; the plot was discovered and foiled. No conflict = no drama—Theater 101.
Making things even worse, Shag is to use a book on the Powder Plot written by none other than King James himself (with aid from his spymaster Robert Cecil), never mind that it is a piece of drek, and that the king, so interested in witches, has decreed that the script must include some of these creatures. What's an artist to do? Refuse the commission and incur royal wrath or come up with something that will satisfy everyone while remaining true to his art? (Above: Dominic Comperatore as Robert Cecil and James Michael Reilly as Shagspeare)
Along the way, Shag must contend with his fellow actors, a feisty daughter he treats badly and grief over the death of his only son Hamnet. The dramatic result of these goings-on is a satisfying, clever play, one that will delight those who know Shakespeare's work well and those who may not be familiar beyond what they read in high school.
One of the most delicious aspects of Equivocation (defined by Merriam-Webster as "using unclear language to deceive or mislead someone") is the fluidity of the roles; six actors play multiple characters, real and those in Shag's plays, morphing from one to another by donning a piece of clothing or assuming a physical posture. Veteran director Paul Mullin is masterful at keeping things moving sans pause, taking the audience along with the actors as we suspend our disbelief (Theater 102) and shift our comprehension of what's happening when. That the second drags a tad is due to the writing, not to Mullin's direction.
On a set designed by Michael Schweikhardt and lit by Michael Gannitti that is very reminiscent of what we believe the Globe Theatre looked like, a stellar troupe of five men and one woman bring Cain's dialogue to life. Once again James Michael Reilly shows what a versatile actor he is; in the role of Shag, he is earnest about his art, outraged at what he's being asked to do, curious about what really happened in the Powder Plot and, by the final scene, has gained a measure of self-awareness. He's matched in talent by Dominic Comperatore as a smarmy Cecil and the actor Nate Fletcher. Kevin Isola's portrayal of the magistrate trying various plotters is appropriately officious while as the actor Armin, he is an active member of the cooperative company, unafraid to offer his opinion even when it's not been solicited. Matthew Sharpe is also masterful as the youngest member of the company, Sharpe, and later as conspirator Robert Catesby, tortured by Cecil, and even as effeminate King James. (Above: Reilly interviews Sharpe as Catesby)
And Rob Krakovski's Richard Burbage comes across as exasperated at Shag's reluctance to write the play; his portrayal of the conspirator priest Garnet really illustrates the conundrum posed by the play's title: Can one ever tell a lie or obfuscate the truth to secure a greater good. Rounding out the cast is Therese Barbato (right, with Sharpe) as Shag's daughter (and Hamnet's surviving twin) Judith—a feisty, intelligent young woman who offers sly observations on her father's art and behavior. She is a jolt of fresh air as the men argue politics and the nature of drama. (Below: Sharpe as King James with Kevin Isola)
The play Shag finally writes, Macbeth, marks the end of a period in which he wrote the great tragedies and history plays; thereafter, he indulges in romantic fantasy to produce works that today are considered "problem plays." Bill Cain offers us an interesting "take" on the creative process; we get to peak behind the scenes as a play is born (or aborted). He intertwines lines from Shakespeare's other plays with his own dialogue; the delight in recognizing them as ones we've read or heard adds to our enjoyment of Equivocation.
And the question of whether the government is telling the truth (and whether art should be used for political reasons) resonates in this post-September 11th world. Bill Cain and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey have shown us how timeless the Bard can be and that history often repeats itself. I heartily recommend this tour de force production.
Equivocation will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. (on the campus of Drew University), in Madison through October 4. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.