Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Equivocation (2009)

Photo by Jenny Graham

Photo by Jenny Graham

The word on the street is that Equivocation, a new play by Bill Cain that receives its world premiere in this year’s repertoire at OSF, is something special – darkly funny, profound and illuminating. The word on the street is bang on – this is a passionate, exhilarating play that is more timely than any work about a turn-of-the-17th-Century acting company has any right to be.

The play’s action centers on a commission from the Crown for William Shagspeare to write a play about a recent bit of political strife, the Gunpowder Plot. VERY briefly, for non-Anglophiles: Catholic terrorists attempted, but failed, to blow up Parliament (including the Lords and assembled nobility) in retaliation for persecution of Catholics since the founding of the Church of England. Only trouble is that there are many flaws in the official record, which to this day leave the facts of the matter unresolved in many people’s minds. It’s like the the 9/11 truth movement, only ~400 years earlier and credible. To stretch the analogy further, Sir Robert Cecil, an advisor to King James, provides Shagspeare with the Crown’s own version of a 9/11 Commission Report, laying out the facts of the Gunpowder Plot as the Crown sees it or, more to the point, wants it to be seen. It is from this version of history that Cecil orders Shagspeare to craft his play.

I’ll stop with the contemporary comparisons now, not because the play stops paralleling recent history but because from this point on the parallels are unmistakable. The Crown is implied to have manufactured the plot for its own ends. It uses the event to solidify its hard line stance against Catholicism. It tortures confessions out of supposed conspirators. In the midst of all of this, Shagspeare is expected to write a play based on supposed facts that he finds dubious at first and impossible to swallow as Equivocation unspools its tale.

The title of the play comes from the practice of equivocation as it was devised and practiced by Jesuit priests – answering questions in a way that satisfies their vows to be truthful without condemning themselves or others to death for their beliefs. (As a (very long) aside, I’ve seen this practice explained in over-simplified terms around the Internet. It’s not as easy as answering “Do you own a hat?” with “I have this hat on my head right here” when the hat belongs, in fact, to your neighbor. Equivocation seeks to get to the philosophical underpinnings of a question, looking for a different, “truer” question that you answer instead. In the play, the example is of a man who comes to your door asking if another man, a Catholic, is inside. The “true” question is said to be “May I kill the man you’re hiding in there?” and therefore you can answer that question “no” while sounding like you’re denying the presence of the man. It’s a tricky, tricky thing, and there’s a reason why equivocators have a bad reputation; “come on, that’s horse manure!” is not a bad comeback.) One such priest, Henry Garnet, explains the concept to Shagspeare in the course of the playwright’s research, and it leads to the resolution he seeks – telling a truth while not telling the truth he has been handed.

The small cast features six players, four of whom play multiple characters with occasionally-breathtaking rapidity. The established team of (Jonathan) Haugen and (Anthony) Heald pop up here (seriously, can I trademark that if they haven’t already?) in the two key roles: William Shagspeare and Robert Cecil respectively. Everyone present stands out in this cast of veterans, however my favorite performance may have been in the service of my least-favorite character: Christine Albright’s Judith Shagspeare. There’s a sub-plot about Shagspeare’s sadness over the death of his son Hamnet and his difficulty remaining connected to his twin (Judith), and honestly I’m not sure why it’s in this play. Something to break up the politics, I guess? In any case, I think it’s out of step with the rest of the production, but Albright’s Judith is still a warmly-rendered performance that makes the most of it, and her scenes with Heald are sparkling.

Mr. Cain should subscribe now as a Patron of the Festival because this first rate production has launched his new work immediately into the canon of oft-produced American plays; I’ll give you odds on it hitting the West End within 5 years.