As English secretary of state under King James I, Sir Robert Cecil was a well-informed man. So well informed that although he wasn’t a theatergoer, he knew who among London’s early-17th-century playwrights was writing work that would endure. As Cecil says to William Shakespeare in the Bill Cain play Equivocation, which opened last weekend at Post5 Theatre, “People will still be performing your plays in 50 years!”
These days that really would be a lofty achievement for a playwright. But Cain’s play, first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, might have that kind of staying power.
Honoring it with the 2010 Steinberg/ATCA Award for the best play to premiere outside of New York City, the American Theatre Critics Association called it a “fantasy-comedy-drama about Shakespeare, Jacobean skulduggery, bigotry and the relationship of art to government and artists’ personal responsibility to truth.” That is to say, there’s a lot to it.
The fantasy comes in the form of the play’s central conceit – Cecil commissioning a reluctant Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, a recently foiled attempt to blow up Parliament, kill the Protestant King and return England to Catholicism – and a revisionist/speculative approach to the history of that “skullduggery.” The comedy comes from a barrelful of jokes about the Bard’s works and the collaborative tumult of a theater troupe (“If we can get through his comedies-don’t-have-to-be-funny period,” the actors gripe while slogging through a King Lear rehearsal, “we can get through this.”) And the drama has multiple nodes, most notably Shakespeare’s doubts about the government account of the plot and his fears of making a misstep amid the sectarian landmines of the time: the choice, as he puts it, to “lie or die.”
Amid all this, Cain also weaves in an ethical treatise on truth-telling (“If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be no honest answer. Answer the question beneath the question”), a critique about the acquisition and uses of power, and the emotional tug of multiple layers of family dynamics.
Narratively and thematically, it’s an awful lot to blend and balance. “My kingdom for a red pen!” objected Washington Post critic Peter Marks when the OSF production was remounted in 2011 at Arena Stage.
Add in that it also requires its cast of six to cover a wide range of roles in dizzying (and often not discrete) succession, and Equivocation is a bear of a script to tackle. For Post5, a young company blessed with more pluck than resources, it counts as a remarkably ambitious choice.
Under Paul Angelo’s spirited direction, the Post5 Equivocation very nearly manages a grasp to match that reach. It is brisk, engaging, and funny enough that the night I saw it the couple behind me laughed so loudly I feared they might perforate an eardrum. At the same time it effectively brings out many of the threads of philosophical inquiry and political allegory that give the work its heft, as well as the feeling of fellowship and goodwill that give it some heart.
And yet, a certain vital tension is lacking.
That might not be entirely a matter of the production. When the play opened in April 2009, American use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the “War on Terror” was a matter of intense public debate, and the parallels with Cecil’s brutal treatment of his Catholic enemies gave Equivocation a sense of both chilling dread and riveting relevance. Only a couple of years later, at the Arena Stage remount, torture references didn’t seem to ring as loudly amid the fugue of themes. (Not surprisingly, the D.C. audience tended to respond most strongly to the explicitly political – such as when Cecil lambastes Shakespeare for demonizing Richard III despite the fact that he’d balanced the budget.) If anything keeps Equivocation from the American stage canon, it might be that its moral outrage on this issue will feel dated, or insufficiently immediate.
It isn’t just a matter of topicality, however. Dramatically speaking, much of the engine of Cain’s story is the dangerous predicament that Shakespeare (Shagspeare, as he’s called here, or Shag for short) finds himself in: Cecil is as much bone-breaker as king-maker, as ruthless as he is powerful, and a mere playwright ought not dare to displease him. For Shag, it’s a conflict between artistic instinct and survival instinct. And despite some vividly grim work from departing artistic director Ty Boice as a bloodied and shaken torture victim, this production doesn’t tighten the screws enough.
The real Robert Cecil was small, so much so that his king called him “my little beagle”; so is Matthew Smith, who plays the role here, and by no means badly but mildly. What’s missing is Cecil’s imposing psychological stature, the frightful power of a tireless, mechanistic intellect wed to a wounded animal of an ego. Smith’s Cecil explains, insinuates, occasionally threatens; but he doesn’t push, pull and intimidate, seduce, trip and ensnare. He shouldn’t just defend Richard III, he should emulate him.
Keith Cable’s Shagspeare too often registers outward concern and inner conflict alike with a strained stare. When he announces, “Now I’m frightened,” in the midst of a prison visit, we wonder what took him so long; disquieting things have happened, but his face hasn’t registered his growing recognition. On the other hand, Cable seems to ease into more nuanced expression by Act II and is strong throughout in conveying the bottled-up guilt and grief that hampers his relationship with his daughter, Judith (played by Rebecca Ridenour with a mix of cynicism and stoicism that somehow comes out as loveliness).
As important as the Shag/Cecil interplay is, Equivocation relies on its ensemble work. Here the production benefits from Jim Vadala’s deft comic touch in a variety of roles, and most especially from the presence of Todd Van Voris, a new Post5 company member but for years one of the city’s great stage talents. As Richard, the de facto leader of Shakespeare’s theater troupe, and as the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, Van Voris creates powerful, well-realized characters that ground and energize any scene they’re in.
Credit also should go to Angelo for keeping the complex plot and shifting characters clear. Some Act I moments could use more deliberate pacing as we get used to Cain’s slippery approach to point of view, and surely Dan Brusich’s lighting design would’ve delineated space even more effectively in a more thoroughly equipped house. But these are quibbles.
Finally, let’s not equivocate on this: Equivocation is a play built to last.
Equivocation continues through October 4 at Post5 Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert Street, Portland. Ticket and schedule information are here.