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Theater review: 'Equivocation' at Geffen Playhouse

November 19, 2009 |  3:00 pm
Equiocation 1

Were William Shakespeare one of today’s bloviating Beltway pundits, would he rather appear on conservative Obama-bashing Fox News or liberal Obama-smooching MSNBC?

Inquiring academic minds have long tried to decipher the politics of a writer who had a way of simultaneously flattering and flouting the powers that be. And it’s to the credit of Bill Cain’s drama “Equivocation,” an ambitiously sprawling work of historical fiction starring the Bard himself, that we come to understand something about the poetic shell-game that artists are forced to play to protect their creative freedom along with their truth.

Shakespeare is a huge subject, as the cottage industry surrounding him attests. Critical studies of every imaginable theoretical flavor compete with speculative biography for the number of volumes produced each year. And this Geffen Playhouse production, which opened Wednesday under the somewhat too lenient direction of David Esbjornson, swells with erudition to both the play’s benefit and detriment. Replete with scholarly wit and a surplus of compelling ideas, the drama keeps wandering off its path to explore yet another facet of the man most of us consider the planet’s all-time greatest playwright.

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Shakespeare, nicknamed Shag, is played by Joe Spano as a middle-aged cross between a pragmatic theater producer and conscience-bound artist. A proud member of the “cooperative venture” known as the Globe Theatre, he’s in the business of pumping out plays that will keep his organization’s ticket sales one step ahead of its debts. Ideology doesn’t just turn him off — it strikes him as downright foolhardy in an age of uncertain patronage and shifting partisan winds. Plus, he’s got enough on his hands with his company's veteran star Richard (Harry Groener) and brash handsome newcomer Sharpe (Patrick J. Adams) squabbling like children.

It’s a heady time to be a dramatic poet in London, a city whose stages are swirling with versified revenge tales. But it’s also an uneasy moment to be in the public eye. After James I succeeds Elizabeth I, religious strife, which has been seething in England since Henry VIII’s heretical divorce, erupts into a paranoid mayhem that makes our post-9/11 days look like a Kumbaya sing-along.
 
Shakespeare knows how easy it is for a writer to accidentally step on a land mine, which is why he’s taken aback when Robert Cecil (Connor Trinneer), the Machiavellian force behind the throne, commissions (i.e., commands) him to write the official drama of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the alleged Catholic terrorist scheme to blow up Parliament and the king along with it. His majesty desires a topical thriller, with a few witches thrown in to add to his occult delight, and Cecil would very much like his version of what happened to be handed down to posterity.

“We don’t do current events,” Shag says anxiously. “We do histories. True Histories of the past.”

But Cecil insists because he suspects that Shag’s work will last, thanks to his ability to be “all things to all men.” The one cautionary word Cecil leaves him with is that he’s not to be a character in the play. This condition becomes exceedingly difficult once Shag starts investigating a crime that may in fact be too convoluted to sort out onstage, especially in a work that also wants to boldly peel back the many layers of Shakespeare’s transfiguring imagination.
 
At the heart of Cain’s play — performed in modern dress by a company of six actors, all of whom take on multiple roles except for Spano and Troian Bellisario, who plays Shag’s daughter Judith — is the question of the different forms equivocation can take. There’s the kind practiced by Father Henry Garnet (Groener), the Jesuit suspected of conspiracy in the Gunpowder Plot, who wrote a treatise on the righteousness of manipulating words in the service of the old faith. The more interesting contrast, however, is between Cecil, who double-talks purely for personal gain and Shag who deceives to reveal a deeper meaning beyond literal facts.

Esbjornson succeeds in finding a contemporary tone for the play, but the staging doesn’t have the same impressive amplitude that director Bill Rauch’s achieved in his world premiere production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this past summer. The upside to the Geffen approach is a genial accessibility, but many of the waggish literary rejoinders are delivered in sitcom italics and the movement between theatrical realms (particularly when scenes from Shakespeare’s tragedies are enacted) can seem cramped on Esbjornson’s simple and rather monotonous black set.

The ensemble is probably most effective at portraying members of a quarrelsome theater company, but the notes of Gap ad naturalism the actors occasionally strike seem out of harmony with the situations being depicted. Shakespeare may have introduced a new level of reality to the English stage, but he wasn’t writing in the shallow vein of today’s realism. At times, the cast members appear to lack the stature of their characters; at others, they become declamatory, as if recognizing the need to grow larger. The gap between role and performer was nearly always evident.

Cain should be congratulated for the breathtaking boldness of his endeavor here. But rather than equivocate myself, let me say that more playwriting discipline and a stronger directorial hand would have shored up this toppling Shakespearean structure.  

-- Charles McNulty


"Equivocation," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 20. $35 to $75 (310) 208-5454 or www.GeffenPlayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Photos: Top: Connor Trinneer, from left, Harry Groener and Joe Spano. Bottom: Brian Henderson, left, and Patrick J. Adams. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu/For the Los Angeles Times

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