We gave it a C+
In the first scene of Equivocation, which just opened at L.A. Geffen Playhouse, Sir Robert Cecil, the head spy and consigliore to King James I circa 1605, attempts to ensnare William Shakespeare into accepting an impossible commission. Cecil (Star Trek: Enterprise‘s Connor Trinneer) orders the Bard (here called ”Will Shagspeare” and played by NCIS regular Joe Spano) to write a play telling the official state version of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, when a ragtag crew of Catholics supposedly tried, and failed, to blow up Parliament, and the Protestant King James inside it. The plot, cast in another light in the graphic novel/movie V for Vendetta, involved wheeling a couple dozen kegs of gunpowder into a tunnel underneath the building. Shagspeare resists the commission — he doesn’t do propaganda, for one thing — and Cecil parries by taunting the playwright: ”You have discovered how to be all things to all men.”
Similarly, Equivocation playwright Bill Cain seems to want his work to be all things to all theatergoers. At one moment, it’s a shrewdly irreverent satire of the Bard’s pretentiousness, as when four actors in the Globe’s cooperative theater company cut short their rehearsal of the playwright’s newest work, King Lear, exasperated by the inscrutable din of its dialogue. (One actor says, wearily, ”If we can get through his comedies-don’t-have-to-be-funny period, we can get through this.”) Just a few scenes later, when Shagspeare visits the Tower of London to interview one of the Gunpowder Plot’s shackled conspirators, the play becomes a dead-serious allegory about enhanced interrogation and Abu Ghraib. Then it morphs into a whodunit meditation on post-9/11 paranoia when the King’s official version of the plot is upended by the suggestion Cecil himself may have supplied the gunpowder in a cynical attempt to exploit his era’s wedge-issue politics (i.e., religion).
With its contemporary costuming and modern American-accented dialogue (save for the Scottish King James), the production strives for an all encompassing Stoppardian self-awareness. The effect can be excruciating, as when Shagspeare’s daughter, Judith (Troian Bellisario), complains about soliloquies — in a soliloquy. At other times, it works: Shagspeare and Cecil have incisive tête-à-têtes about the challenges of turning a ”true” story into compelling theater. Cecil becomes a kind of nexus for all the play’s disparate ambitions; Trinneer bears a striking resemblance to George W. Bush, walks with a hump and a limp a la Richard III, and spouts all the best lines about Shakespeare’s legacy. (”Some people may question whether you even exist!”)
The cast, most in dual or triple roles, manages to hold the over-taxed material together. Director David Esbjornson, who also designed the spare, black-on-black set, thankfully keeps the staging direct and simple, and his actors never tip into self-parody. Spano gives Shagspeare a world-weary idealism that compensates for the character’s occasionally fuzzy motivations, and Harry Groener (the mayor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) brings affecting grace and intelligence to his dual roles as Shagspeare’s lead actor and the Jesuit priest accused of masterminding the plot.
But even expert acting can’t quite salvage the feeling that Cain’s reach far exceeds his grasp. Rather than honestly solve Shagspeare’s central dilemma — telling the truth about the Gunpowder Plot without literally losing his head — Equivocation simply has the Bard conjure his final great tragedy instead (hint: it’s first referred to as ”a Scot-ish play”). Presumably, this dark and bloody tale for a dark and bloody time is the outgrowth of Shagspere’s equivocation about his royal commission. But when Shag’s company stages Macbeth, they perform with an impish, self-conscious wink that undercuts Cain’s larger aspirations. Much like someone says of the Gunpowder Plot itself, it’s an appealing two-act build up to an explosion that doesn’t happen. Grade: B?
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 310-208-5454)