Imagine if you will that on or about the one-year anniversary of 9/11, an emissary from the President Of The United States visited the most popular contemporary American filmmaker (insert whatever name you wish here) with an order—that a movie be made about the events leading up to the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, a movie which would place the blame on Saddam Hussein and his “weapons of mass destruction.”   The President, continues his envoy, has himself written a draft of the screenplay, and our filmmaker needs only spice it up with some dialog—and with witches thrown in for good measure.   (Oh, and the President can’t be in the flick.)  The filmmaker knows that if he makes the movie the President is demanding, he will be telling a deliberate lie, as well as demonizing “enemies” who just may be blameless. On the other hand, to refuse the President’s demands will mean being accused of treason, and punished accordingly. 

If you were this filmmaker, what would you do?

This is more or less the question posed by playwright Bill Cain in his fascinating, thought-provoking drama Equivocation, now getting its Southern California premiere at the Geffen Playhouse.

The story Cain has to tell, however, is not a contemporary one, no matter how many parallels can be drawn with today’s world.  His protagonist is none other than William Shakespeare (known here as Shagspeare, or Shag), the national leader is King James I, and the 17th Century equivalent of 9/11 is the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  In the King James version of the events, Roman Catholic conspirators planned unsuccessfully to blow up the Houses Of Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, an act which would have killed James, his family, and his entire government.  All this seems more than a bit fishy to Shag. After all, wouldn’t members of Parliament have heard strange noises as the tunnel was being built, and what about all the dirt that would have been displaced by the digging?

Shag tries to get out of writing the play by maintaining that, “We don’t do politics.  We do histories. True histories of the past,” and when that doesn’t work, he asks Cecil, “Why me?” “Because,” Cecil replies, “You have discovered how to be all things to all men.”

Realizing that he has no choice in the matter, Shag interviews various suspected conspirators.  These include Tom Wintour, already arrested and tortured almost to death, and Father Henry Garnet, supposed author of the plot. It is Garnet who explains to Shag the concept of “equivocation.”  “Don’t answer the question they’re asking,” he tells the playwright.  “Answer the question beneath the question. The equivalent question.”  For example, if soldiers come to your door asking if there is a Catholic inside and you know that in fact there is one, “equivocation” will allow you to reply “No,” because you realize that the real question being asked is “May I kill the man you’re hiding in there?” This sets Shag to thinking. Could he possibly find a way to equivocate himself out of this conundrum?

There you have the basic premise of Bill Cain’s Equivocation, and even if that were all the play had on its mind or up its sleeve, it would doubtless still be an interesting piece of theater.  In Cain’s ingenious hands, however, Equivocation is much more than that. Admittedly, at three hours (including its fifteen minute intermission), Equivocation could stand to lose about twenty minutes. Not withstanding, this is downright brilliant writing, and as directed by David Esbjornson, it is downright brilliant theater as well.   

Take for example, the scene in which we are witnessing the planning of the Gunpowder Plot by its conspirators, when suddenly (with the help of Scott Zielinski’s superb lighting) the plotters turn into Shag’s troupe of performers enacting the scene in question.  Then (again in an instant), one of the players becomes the aforementioned King’s emissary, Sir Robert Cecil, commenting on Shag’s version of the events.  We then go back to the conspiracy and after that back to the actors and then back to Sir Robert, all these changes taking place in the blink of an eye. Wow is right!

Equivocation works its wonders on many levels. As a political drama, it is every bit as compelling as say Frost/Nixon or Fahrenheit 911, and since Cain has his actors speak in contemporary English (except when doing Shakespeare) and designer Frances Kenny costumes them in modern dress, the play never feels “historical.”  As a thought-provoker, Equivocation raises issues of ethics vs. political expediency. (Shag declares at one point, “I want to tell the truth.  I just don’t want to get caught at it.”)  Shag and Judith’s conflicted relationship (even now, years later, he can’t help wishing it was she who died years ago and not her twin brother) provides some of the play’s most touching moments. Then there are those scenes from Shakespeare, one from King Lear, with Shag’s actors complaining mid-scene that they don’t get what the playwright is going for, and another, near the end, from Macbeth, with the three witches brought delectably to life by the same actors.  Finally, there is all the backstage excitement and drama which accompanies putting on a play, or in this case, of putting on a play within a play.

Four of Equivocation’s six actors play multiple roles—all but Joe Spano (Shag) and Troian Bellisario (Judith).  Harry Groener is Father Garnet and (as company manager Richard) also gets to be both Lear and Macbeth.  Connor Trinneer is the King’s smarmy emissary Sir Robert Cecil and (as Nate) plays Kent in King Lear and Banquo in Macbeth. Patrick J. Adams gets the plum dual roles of doomed conspirator Tom Wintour and James, the Scottish King of England, as well as actor Sharpe (who plays Edgar and Macduff).  Finally, Brian Henderson gets to transform himself into plot leader Robert Catesby, chief prosecutor Sir Edward Coke, actor Armin (whose specialty is playing jesters), Lear’s Fool, Lady Macbeth, and about ten other roles in all.

Spano is an electric stage presence as Shag, growling and ranting and raging in a performance so different from his deliberately restrained George in the Rubicon’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf that one stands in awe of his versatility.  Groener is that rarity, a bona fide musical theater star who works just as often in straight dramas, giving brilliant performances in both. Here he is a towering presence both as lead actor Richard and as introspective Jesuit Priest Father Garnet. Trinneer’s frequent transformations from hunchbacked, withered-armed, conniving Sir Robert to sensible, level-headed, dynamic Richard are dazzling.  

Henderson, whose charismatic performance as closeted movie star Mitchell Green in The Little Dog Laughed at the Kirk Douglas signaled a leading man on the rise, is even better in Equivocation. From his amusing fool to his regal Lady Macbeth to his roles as conspirator and prosecutor and all the others, too numerous to mention here, Henderson does memorable work indeed.  

As Judith, Bellisario gives a performance that signals great things ahead for the recent USC grad. Her unappreciated daughter is the glue that holds Equivocation together, from her complaints about Shakespearean soliloquies (which she makes in the form of a soliloquy), to the ingenious solution she offers her father to his dilemma, to the magical final moments of the play. I can’t wait to see more from this talented young actress.

Finally, there is the gifted young Adams doing revelatory work in three major roles.   Those who saw his professional debut at the Taper in The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? just days after his graduation from USC will recall his performance as a gay teen with a father fixation which impressed even the toughest critics.  Here he makes an equally indelible impression in three very different roles. As Sharpe, he is an intensely dedicated young actor with a mind of his own.  As torture victim Tom Wintour, his work is poignant and heart-breaking.  As King James, with his Scottish burr and kilt-and-boots Catholic schoolgirl getup, he is an absolute delight.  And Adams also gets to play Shakespeare’s Edgar and Macduff! Masterful work by an actor you’re sure to be hearing much more from.

As might be expected, Equivocation at the Geffen looks and sounds as great as it is acted, from Esbjornson’s simple but striking black set to Kenny’s costumes, also mostly in black, to Zielinski’s evocative lighting design to Jon Gottlieb’s dramatic sound design, which punctuates and links scenes.

In a season which includes star vehicles for Matthew Modine, Annette Bening, and Laurence Fishburne, Equivocation is no less stellar a production.  You don’t have to be an intellectual to appreciate Equivocation, or even a student of history (though I’d guess that an intellectual historian would just eat it up).  You don’t even have to be a lover of live theater. At Tuesday’s Talkback, an audience member who had never seen a live play before (can you imagine?) commented on how much she’d enjoyed Equivocation.  

Without the slightest equivocation, this almost-daily theatergoer can say precisely the same thing.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
November 24, 2009
                                                                                                   Photos: Michael Lamont

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