In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605—a failed effort to dynamite the Houses of Parliament along with King James I and his family—Shakespeare is summoned to take on a play commission for the Crown. As he’s playwright for the theatre troupe that holds the king’s charter, they make him an offer he can’t refuse.
King James’s (Sean Lally) right hand man, Robert Cecil, warmly flatters the playwright, “With every play you raise the bar of cynical audience manipulation.” Shakespeare (Eric Hissom) reluctantly takes on the task saying, “You don’t want a play. You want a propaganda story.” As he investigates the circumstances of the Gunpowder Plot, he locks horns with gimpy Cecil, a force to be reckoned with, played crafty and dangerous by Dan Hodge. A very different possible plot scenario emerges, and Shakespeare (“Shag” to his actor friends) laments, “I want to tell the truth but I don’t want to be caught doing it.”
Jesuit Bill Cain’s EQUIVOCATION winds into treacherous territory as a skein of events unfolds and Shag becomes convinced that the great Gunpowder Plot was something treasonous courtier Cecil knew all too much about. Angered by the lies and a teasing royal disavowal of secret torture occurring in hidden places, he must find a way to subversively resist, satisfy the king, and save his skin. Naturally he goes to a Jesuit for a short course in equivocation. But stalwart Jesuit, Henry Garnet (Ian Merrill Peakes) is doomed, a prisoner of conscience in the Tower. He had failed to outmaneuver the powerful Cecil.
Director Terrence J. Nolen achieves a tour de force in directing a winding multi-faceted story, which could easily have broken down and become muddled. Based on the foundation of a theater troupe working on stage, the actors clearly delineate and embody the traits of their (sometimes multiple) characters. In the foreground, hidden in plain sight, a deep-rooted family drama that at first seems unimportant plays out in brief domestic scenes as Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith (Campbell O’Hare), picks up laundry and tidies up at home. Layered in, Lally’s brave accused conspirator Tom Wintour inspires, and Anthony Lawton makes his supporting roles peculiarly distinctive.
The beautifully designed set is a version of The Globe stage done in Jacobean dark brown. Designers pull out all the stops with smoke, thunder, lightning, and subtle sound effects.
Initially I had been afraid that this might be one of those tiresome plays that drops quotes from dozens of Shakespeare’s works so the cognoscenti can chuckle knowingly as they identify character and play. But this isn’t like that. There definitely are lines from plays here, but they’re neither random nor gratuitous, especially lines from The Scottish Play as it’s engineered into the plot.
However, it must be asked, does this play’s premise wash? Shag has agreed to make a play of the king’s book on the Gunpowder Plot. Instead he repurposes a play he had abandoned earlier. Much theater time has been expended on developing one thing, only to have a solution brought in late that shares the only the broad outline of a plot to kill a king. It’s a big shift and the show begins to feel long. Could Shakespeare really get away with substituting something that is definitely not the king’s book and which, seen through a subtle lens, could place blame where the King’s courtier least wants it insinuated? Looks like a disconnect in the construction.
Yet the Arden production—vastly entertaining if lengthy in execution, at ten minutes short of three hour—overcomes the plot’s one serious shortcoming in this very theatrical Jesuitical examination and dissection of equivocation. Brilliant actors dig into a juicy show that has it all: a major conflicted character, plays within plays operating on different levels of theatrical reality, political scheming, wonderful pithy lines, ‘deniable’ torture, courtroom drama, nudity, and ultimately, underneath it all, it’s personal —about family and righting a long-standing wrong.
[Arden Theatre, Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street] October 22-December 13, 2015; ardentheatre.org.