Fathers and sons, Protestants and Catholics, fathers and daughters, politics and posterity, actors and writers, art and commerce—all are concerns that Bill Cain weighs in Equivocation, a three-hour dramedy centered around one Will Shagspeare. It’s a bit much already, no? And I’ve forgotten to mention the civics lesson about how torture is bad.
We’re in Jacobean London, where James I has succeeded Elizabeth, and where tensions between the Church of England and the outlawed Roman faith still run high. In the Tower: the conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot, which was meant to take out the king and a good chunk of Parliament besides. In the Privy Council room: ruthless Robert Cecil, the king’s enforcer, who wants the author of Henry V and Richard III to tackle current events for a change. Can Master Shagspeare make a drama out of a bomb plot that didn’t actually go bang? Dare he tell the truths he uncovers in the course of his research, or must he, like the Jesuit who’ll eventually stand trial in the plot, learn to talk out of both sides of his mouth? Will he sell out his principles for a fat purse—or for fear of losing James’ favor? And how will he ever find time to finish King Lear?
Yes, it’s one of those plays, rife with in-jokes designed to make Shakespeare fans chuckle knowingly when someone cracks wise about his over-reliance on a soliloquy (or a convenient set of twins). And as those plays go, it’s not really a bad one: The quotes and quips are apt enough. And there’s poignancy in Cain’s portrait of an aging artist mourning the son he didn’t know well enough—and unable to connect with the twin daughter who survives, skulking at the rear of her dad’s affections.
But Equivocation has so much more on its mind, and as it attempts to grapple with weightier issues—about how “the truth” gets constructed, about how much of it we can handle (paging Messrs. Stoppard and Sorkin), about when an artist is morally obliged to speak truth publicly to power—it begins to feel as bloated and pompous as that other royal Henry.
Bill Rauch’s cast, drawn from regulars at his Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comes at the play with no little craft, and with substantial relish—sometimes too much of the latter, to the point that as the three-hour mark approaches, pleasures like Christine Albright’s wise, winsome Judith and Richard Elmore’s humanely intelligent priest get drowned in what feels like way too much sound and fury. Equivocation may be the question of the evening, but I’ve got to put it bluntly: I came away grumpy about a play I was predisposed to like.