Playwright Bill Cain uses the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 as a context to explore the ways governments equivocate to manipulate events and politics, well as a forum to discuss how theater itself is a form of equivocation.
Sound complicated? It is. So much so, in fact, that Cain often seems to lose sight of his purpose while wandering down interesting, but unproductive, tangents. As a whole, the play suffers for Cain’s over-ambitious vision, sinking beneath the weight of heavy-handed references to the actions of the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11, but it still poses important questions, and David Esbjornson’s production at the Geffen Playhouse does an admirable job at holding the piece together.
Let’s start with the history. A man named Guy Fawkes plotted with an underground society of Jesuits and disaffected noblemen to blow up England’s Houses of Parliament while King James I attended a session, the plan being to decimate the monarchy and the aristocracy. On November 5, 1605, Fawkes and his conspirators were discovered in a room full of gunpowder beneath Parliament, and the plot was thwarted. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were executed, and the country became completely Protestant.
Cain takes this episode and constructs an entire scenario around it in which the King’s minister and consigliore, Sir Robert Cecil (Connor Trinneer), approaches William Shakespeare (here called Shagspeare, or Shag for short, and played by Joe Spano) to write a play based on the events of the Gunpowder Plot--that is, to tailor the official version of events that Cecil and the King have sanctioned.
Fearing for his life if he refuses, Shag reluctantly accepts the commission, especially once his best friend and colleague, Richard Burbage (played as arrogant but vulnerable by Harry Groener), signs on, as do the other actors in the group, Nate (also Trinneer), company clown Armin (the loose-limbed Brian Henderson) and young hothead Sharpe (Patrick J. Adams).
This is where the plot starts getting fuzzy. Shag is an artist living a comfortable bourgeois life thanks to his successful career, but he is tortured on many levels. Will his works endure? Can he write truthfully about current events? What is the job of a playwright, and that of actors... and of kings for that matter? Is he writing from actual events, or will history report the events as he writes them, conforming to the version he is fed by Cecil? How can he create drama from an explosion that never happened? Finally, why can he not reconcile with his estranged goth princess of a daughter, Judith (Troian Bellisario), who lurks in the background and complains about the untruthfulness of theater, mainly in soliloquies about how much she hates soliloquies?
Therein lies the rub. Cain has written several plays in one, and though each plotline and character arc contains clever, insightful moments, they rarely cohere into a single work. The play is a series of disjointed snippets of motives, intentions, and thematic parallels to our current day that, though striking, only pop up sporadically.
The most intriguing thrust of Cain’s play is Shag’s attempt to dramatize the events of the Gunpowder Plot. To that end, Shag repeatedly returns to the sinister Cecil for troubling conversations about an artist’s place in society, the fine line between play and propaganda, and the question whether Cecil himself might have orchestrated the entire plot as a means to destroy the Jesuits and inspire loyalty to the foreign-born king whom he himself placed on the throne. Sensing weakness, Cecil strokes Shag’s ego, telling him that if he writes the official version of events, his work will be sure to endure. Then he takes another tack by claiming that Shag’s work is necessary because "we can heal this nation." Shag retorts, "You want to heal this nation with a lie."
Under the pretext of getting all the little facts right, Shag persuades Cecil to let him interview some of the conspirators, including a young nobleman named Tom Wintour (also played Adams) who reminds Shag of his dead son, Hamnet (Judith’s twin brother). Shag must then watch Wintour being hanged, quartered and drawn... which the audience gruesomely gets to witness as well. Here is yet another heavy-handed reference to the events of our own day, as if we needed another reminder of the misdeeds of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.
Shag also interviews the accused ringleader of the plot, Jesuit priest Father Henry Garnet, whom Groener portrays with quiet, endearing dignity and a moral clarity that comforts Shag. Garnet is also an expert on equivocation, though. Garnet defines the word as "answering the question really being asked," so in his estimation, equivocation is not lying, it is simply articulating a higher truth--a truth that a questioner might not even know he is asking for.
Shag takes this as justification not to write Cecil’s play, but to write Macbeth instead, a "Scot-ish" play that Shag says is all about "politics and pornography." Judith exults, "Finally a true play!" Shag agrees, but says, "It is a play for a world of lies." Perhaps, he muses, that will make it timeless.
The King, played with equal parts bounciness and menace by Adams, is delighted because he interprets Macbeth as a justification for his rule of England, while Cecil is furious at Shag’s audacity. However, Shag gets off Scot free (so to speak) since Cecil still gets what he wants: the conspirators are executed, his grip on power is consolidated, and his version of events will be the one handed down to history by schoolchildren chanting the famous verse: "Remember, remember the fifth of November. Gunpowder, treason, and plot!" Guy Fawkes is still burned in effigy every year on November fifth.
Despite the play’s flaws, Cain’s parallels are well taken. A story about a shadow government that uses questionable evidence and tactics to pin blame on a religious group for terrorist acts and as a pretext for political and economic maneuvering has never been timelier than our current moment.
The six actors maintain an impressive energy level as they play dozens of parts. Nowhere is this clearer than in the scene where the actors are both the audience and performers of Macbeth, delivering lines as actors, then sitting down to react as the audience, all at a frantic comical pitch. No one is more energetic than Adams, practically sprinting from part to part, though Spano is a fine counterpoint as the consistent and thoughtful Shag.
The most troubling role is that of Judith, who plays a sort of conscience in the flesh for Shag, and seems to serve little purpose other than to remind him of his responsibility to bring truth to his work. This part is certainly not easy, but Bellisario does not do much with it.
The production values also lend themselves towards a modern reading. The set is an all-black quasi reconstruction of the stage of the Old Globe that serves as the theater, the Tower of London, Cecil’s office, and even the King’s bedchamber. Mostly, however, it feels like a prison--a sort of holding cell at a black ops facility with hidden doors and nooks implying danger in every shadow. The costumes are part of this aesthetic, all drab tones of gray and black that belong to our time rather than Shakespeare’s, and are versatile enough for every quick character change.
Well acted and directed, the play feels like it is still only half-formed. Cain could cut the extraneous story lines, use a lighter touch when drawing historical parallels, and leave it to the audience to ponder the nature of theater, and he would have an incisive, succinct work. As it is, the ambitious scale of this production is still very impressive, and the themes--all of them--are cogent and germane.
Equivocation runs Wednesday, November 18-Sunday, December 20 at Geffen Playhouse 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024. Performances are Tuesday-Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. Tickets are $45-75 and can be bought by calling (310) 285-5454, or visiting http://geffenplayhouse.com