If we were to liken Bill Cain’s meta-theatrical Shakespearean homage, Equivocation, to something out of the Bard’s own oeuvre, it would be what scholars call a ”problem play.” It’s a comedy that features hangings, beheadings, and assorted so-called acts of treason. It’s a tragedy leavened by drama-within-a-drama cat-fighting, 21st-century profanity, and winking references to such well-known works as King Lear and Macbeth (the latter of which we eventually see performed CliffsNotes-style). And it’s a history play about an obscure 405-year-old event — the Catholics’ botched attempt to kill England’s Protestant King James I — populated by characters we’ve never really heard of. The only guy we recognize in Equivocation has been rechristened ”Shagspeare,” a.k.a. Shag (played by a very sincere, very miscast John Pankow). Because 394 years after his death someone was going to sue?
The play, though highly contrived, starts promisingly: Shag gets a commission from King James (David Furr) via prime minister/head henchman Cecil (a wonderfully oily David Pittu), a creepy fellow with a Richard III-like limp. Shag must pen a drama about the real-life Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (from a book by his highness himself) for his theatrical troupe, a motley quartet currently rehearsing the mad scene in King Lear. Skulking about in the wings is Shag’s emotionally distant 19-year-old daughter Judith (the lovely, understated Charlotte Parry), whose greatest joy seems to come from tallying the body count in her dad’s plays: 2,987. ”And they’re starting to die in the comedies,” she smiles. She also does laundry and dispenses dramatic criticism. ”I don’t like theater. And I don’t like soliloquies.” Naturally, she says this in a soliloquy. ”And he always gives soliloquies to the wrong people. As if you needed to know one more thing about Hamlet.” That last bit is imbued with a bit of bitterness — the Bard wrote the great Danish tragedy for his dead son, the similarly named Hamnet, Judith’s twin brother.
But when Shag decides to dig up the truth behind the whole Catholic/Protestant/gunpowder fracas, Equivocation‘s light, let’s-put-on-a-show spirit vanishes faster than Banquo’s ghost. (Also vanishing: a great many of the laughs.) Shag is soon visiting prisoners, watching executions, and confessing his sins to Jesuit priests. Meanwhile, Cecil has gone mental, revealing all his bloody deeds and ambitions. And suddenly Shag is inspired to write Macbeth! Confused? You’re not the only one.
Equivocation is at its best when someone is performing Shakespeare or critiquing it. The mini-Macbeth, staged with community-theater-style pluck, is great fun. And Tony-winning director Garry Hynes (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) manages to keep a rein on the show-within-a-show, the backstage action (costume changes! last-minute script revises!), and overexcited viewer King James, who practically clicks his heels with glee whenever he sees the witches. For some reason, the King loves witches. Cain, who founded the Boston Shakespeare Company, clearly has great affection for (not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of) the Bard’s work, and he imparts some shrewdly comical insights. For example, Shag on Macbeth: ”Five acts of politics and pornography, nothing more. It will run for centuries!” Judith on her dad: ”He’s never written a play about a happy family…or a good marriage.”
But those who aren’t as well-read as Cain will inevitably find themselves adrift. An extended scene that opens with ”How now, Garnet? You secret, black, and midnight priest!” is amusing…if you know that it’s really ”How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags?” and that all the lines are lifted (out of context) from Macbeth. Similarly, Judith’s lovely epilogue — in which she ponders her father’s final four plays and their wacky, wonderful antics (goddesses, dreams, statues, shipwrecks, resurrections, bears) — won’t resonate unless you’ve read or seen Pericles, Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. Especially since they’re never even mentioned by name! By that point you’re liable to be as lost as Lear in the woods. C+
(Tickets: nycitycenter.org or 212-581-1212)