A Comedy of Terrors

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

A less subtle title for Bill Cain's new play Equivocation would be "Shakespeare in War." Just as Shakespeare in Love (the Oscar-winning 1998 film, written by Marc Norman with help from Tom Stoppard) implies that a love affair inspired the Bard's greatest comedy, Twelfth Night, Equivocation posits that an act of terrorism inspired Shakespeare's great tragedy Macbeth.

It's no use quibbling with the facts in either of these tales, if scholars can't even agree if Shakespeare actually wrote his plays, it's even more pointless to nitpick the facts employed by playwrights to hypothesize how he wrote them. The criteria I use in judging these works is not adherence of fact but rather a believability of style. (Something playwright Cain acknowledges when he describes Equivocation as "based on a lie about a true story")

After seeing Equivocation (currently receiving its Los Angeles premiere at the Geffen Playhouse) it felt to me like what I would imagine Marc Norman's original Shakespeare in Love script looked like before Tom Stoppard took a whack at it. The play seemed well conceived, well-written, but as seen at the Geffen, it lacked a certain lightness of touch, a sense of grace to make the mixture of politics and poetry come alive on stage.

Something just seemed off, especially since reviews of the play's premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer and the fact that Equivocation is headed off-Broadway next spring, all suggested that it there was more to it than what was on stage at the Geffen.

So I read both drafts of the play, thinking perhaps it was tinkered with since moving from the safe confines of a Shakespeare festival to a tough commercial theater in LA. Surprisingly little was changed however: a quip that compared people's appetite for executions in Shakespeare's England to reality television was added, and a few passages about ancient Greece and British royalty were trimmed for a more general audience.

On the page, Cain's Equivocation is no masterpiece — it's juicy scenes and ideas don't always mesh gracefully and its shifts in mood, not to mention its dialogue, too often signal an author's desire for neatness. But in the text, there is a lightness of tone that's missing on the Geffen stage. Director David Esbjornson employs a dark, static set and underlines every similarity between England at the time of the Gunpowder Plot and post-9/11 America. At the heart of Cain's work is a desire to show that Shakespeare found a way to speak truth to power in a time of fear. The title "Equivocation," stresses this — as does the play when a character insists that to equivocate (i.e. to hedge or mislead, instead of being direct) is not just a way of lying, but instead a way of getting at the truth.

Esbjornson and the six-person ensemble effectively convey the basics of Cain's plot, namely Shakespeare's ability to juggle art and commerce; but what's missing is a sense of mischief — after all, deep down, Equivocation is a sort of backstage farce. Instead of black comedy, Esbjornson presents the play as a somber treatise on war and theater.

There are a few things I still have problems with in Cain's play — the notion that Macbeth was the Bard's last good work, the way Shakespeare is referred to as Shagspeare throughout, and in generally the way "Shag" (played by Joe Spano) always comes off as the smartest guy in the room, also the character of Shakespeare's daughter feels like a devise — yet I feel Equivocation is less in need of a Tom Stoppard rewrite; but rather simply a director and cast who can smooth over these bumps and present the work not as a puffed up, serious drama, but simply as a breezy, provocative entertainment.

Bill Cain's Equivocation runs through Sunday at the Geffen Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


Banner image: Joe Spano as Shakespeare and Troian Bellisario as his daughter Judith in Bill Cain's new play Equivocation at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo: Michael Lamont