Developed locally at the Ojai Playwrights Conference and having received universal accolades in its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Ashland earlier this year, Bill Cain’s staggeringly brilliant Equivocation, in its current incarnation at the Geffen Playhouse, is only beginning what is sure to be a long and celebrated journey as one of the most important new plays of the decade.
Although director David Esbjornson and the Geffen’s powers-that-be have somewhat unsuccessfully chosen to update Cain’s Equivocation to modern dress, the tale itself takes place in 1605 and is based on the true story of England’s notorious Gunpowder Plot, where those dreaded Catholics were accused of plotting to blow up Parliament and their bloodthirsty King right along with it.
This was of course a defining moment in the realm’s sketchy history and today, it is known that the events could not have possibly occurred the way the British government at the time claimed they did in their blatant effort to further the anti-Catholic cause of the Protestant Church of England. As one of Cain’s characters treasonously observes, “Religion is the name those in power give their greed”—or as Ayn Rand wrote a few centuries later, it was yet another excellent historical example of how faith and force combine to become the “destroyers of mankind.”
In Equivocation, King James (Patrick J. Adams) commissions his country’s most successful playwright, William Shakespeare (played at the Geffen by Joe Spano and here called Shagspeare), to write a decidedly one-sided play about the Plot and present it at his Globe Theatre cooperative, a self-serving “history” which would further his monarchy’s depiction of the events—and become the most blatantly false tool of political propaganda since the also fictional immaculate birth of that poor misused and misquoted “savior” himself.
As Shag’s troupe prepares to undertake the project, the troubled playwright, abandoning his usual dour fare filled with more death and destruction than even real life at the time, becomes increasingly more aware that nothing he is to write under the watch of King James’ slimy yes-man Sir Robert Cecil (Connor Trinneer) has much basis in truth. This leads to the heart of Cain’s fascinatingly complex three hour-plus long theatrical epic journey: Shag’s quest to keep his integrity intact while also attempting to keep his head attached at the neck.
Having several friends who saw or were part of the original production at Ashland (directed by our Cornerstone Theatre’s former artistic director Bill Rausch) and could not stop talking about the performance of Anthony Heald as Shag and the company’s more broadly comedic approach to the work there, I was personally—perhaps ignorantly—impressed with most of the ensemble assembled at the Geffen, most of whom play various roles from the politicos to the plotters to the company members chosen to interpret the King’s absurd commission to Shakespearean characters from Lear to Lady Macbeth. Save one performance in this splendid company, these folks know what an ensemble cast should be and work together with amazing skill and alacrity.
Adams is a special standout as a quite contemporary and brat-ish King James, as well as assaying the role of the continuously dissenting company member Sharpe and Tom Wintour, one of the most youthful participants accused of being a participant in the Gunpowder Plot—and a character whom Shag is given the opportunity to watch being tortured and eventually hung, cut down alive, disemboweled and, finally, beheaded—all in an effort to show the writer how important his cooperation and compliance with the King’s wishes is…er… requested.
Trinneer, best known as Trip in the last Star Trek series (Enterprise) and my own Brechtian liege King Edward II for Circle X at the Actors Gang in 2001, is wonderfully hateful as Sir Robert, sliding his crippled Richard III-inspired body around the bleakly atmospheric stage (starkly and grandly designed by director Esbjornson), oozing hate and envy from every pour, then transforming instantaneously to the bespecled Nate and again on to Kent and Banquo in the plays-within-a-play sections.
Spano is an introspective and quietly tortured Shag, although his performance is not as memorable or as haunting as I suspect this role could have been in other hands or perhaps under more inspired direction, and Brian Henderson is glorious in all his roles, from prosecutor Sir Edward Coke to a Lady Macbeth so provocative it attracts the sexually ambiguous eye of the King himself.
Still beyond the work of these fine actors, Harry Groener, as everyone from Lear to Macbeth to the disagreeable head of Shag’s acting troupe, gives the most noteworthy performance of all. Yet Groener soars to its highest of artistic heights here when he dons the robes of Father Henry Garnet, the doomed and much-maligned Jesuit cleric upon whom the brunt of the blame for the Plot is levied—particularly since he is the author of a banned dissertation called Equivocation, in which the priest bravely takes on and blesses the virtue of manipulating words and even outright lying with the ultimate benefit in sight of maintaining and secretly practicing the “old” faith.
The Achilles’ heel of this Equivocation is the lackluster, unnecessarily wooden performance of Troian Bellisario as Shag’s proud and continually ignored daughter Judith, a turn so out of place in this otherwise excellent cast that it led to one of my more astute critical colleagues to even wonder why the character was included in Cain’s script. With a better actress in the role—perhaps one without a famous Hollywood producer for a father to pull some Geffen-y strings—the importance of Judith to the storyline would be obvious, especially when, I’ve been told repeatedly, at Oregon Shakes one critical late exchange in Equivocation between the deserted daughter and her negligent father didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
Equivocation will be presented anew early in 2010 in New York by the Manhattan Theatre Club under the direction of Irish wünderkind Garry Hynes of Galway’s Druid Theatre Company, who was the first female director ever honored with a Tony, in 1998, for The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Mark my word: this amazing and urgently eminent new work of theatrical wonder will be a major contender for every award imaginable when it arrives there, certainly including a deserved nomination for next year’s coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Equivocation plays through Dec. 20 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood CA; For tickets, call 310.208.5454, or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com/equivocation