No need to equivocate: Bill Cain’s “Equivocation” at the Geffen Playhouse is one of the most bracingly intelligent, sizzlingly theatrical American plays in a decade. Stuffed — some will say overstuffed — with themes, incidents and epigrams purporting to tell one version of William Shakespeare’s midlife career crisis, it’s an experience no serious theatergoer will want to miss. Premiered earlier this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Fest and headed for a Manhattan Theater Club Off Broadway berth in February, the text is destined for a long life in professional venues and elsewhere.
Cain has set himself a tall challenge. Easier to write would be the dried-up husk of Edward Bond’s “Bingo,” or the lovelorn scamp of “Shakespeare in Love” hacking away at “Ethel, the Pirate King’s Daughter.” Cain’s Bard (Joe Spano) is an infinitely more complex character as familiar as the guy next door (and heavily influenced by Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human”) — successful and settled, yet agonized over his career and familial failures. A crowd=pleaser with no personality of his own, he’s tormented about the paradoxes of stage actors presuming to impersonate the human condition.
The Bard’s work has hit a dead end, according to “cooperative venture” Globe Theater brethren, who can’t make out this new play about a crazy king running around in his underwear as three daughters die. (Cain makes much comic hay out of canon in-jokes.) Meanwhile, leading man Richard (Harry Groener) suffers his own crisis of confidence with Sharpe (Patrick J. Adams) — younger, stronger and more talented — nipping at his heels.
Into this maelstrom of egos and artifice enters real life in the form of Jacobean politics. Master “Shag” is to pen a dramatization of the recent (1605) Gunpowder Plot in which Catholic rebels schemed — or so propaganda trumpets it — to blow up Parliament and King James I with it. (No need to worry if your English history is rusty; by the end Cain will make you feel you’ve been urged to remember, remember the Fifth of November your whole life.)
Celebrating the transplanted Scottish sovereign is doubtless a noble patriotic effort sure to improve the Globe’s fortunes. But Shag is frustrated by the lack of drama, as four acts of conspiracy lead to a letdown when Parliamentfails to blow up. More to the point, what’s the real purpose of this commission, anyway? Who’s pulling the strings, and what’s the hidden agenda?
What ensues is a cornucopia of plots and counterplots, constantly invoking our own era’s political gamesmanship but always returning to Shakespeare’s heart. There’s also plenty of wonderful, quotable talk, though eventually it all amounts to too much on top of too much, despite helmer David Esbjornson’s diligent efforts to make each twist pop. (Perhaps too diligent; after the eighth or ninth triumphant reveal or reversal in a row, it’s hard not to get the sense of staging attempting to conceal overwriting.)
The play will likely get tightened and maybe gain more star power in its journey to Gotham. But it will be lucky to find another cast equally talented and impressive.
Not only do Esbjornson’s thesps embody the easy familiarity and daily hissy fits of a long-standing troupe, but (in the manner of the era) they brilliantly take on multiple roles in the “real life” milieu. Groener’s arrogant yet insecure Richard is balanced by his moving sketch of Father Garnet, the cleric behind the conspiracy, and Connor Trinneer transforms affable Nate into the King’s feral creature Cecil with a Richard III-like hip twist.
Brian Henderson handles the low comedy with gusto, and Adams’ triple turn (as the Globe’s ambitious ingenue male, the cabal’s most vulnerable traitor and the evilly jaunty King James) is a jaw-dropping delight among an embarrassment of riches.
Still, the least flashy performance is the one on which everything depends. Spano’s keen moral intelligence pervades every scene, persuading us this man could indeed have known enough about mankind to tell us the truth about ourselves in play after play.
Yet we also believe the anguish of a genius too knowledgeable about life to fully know himself. Standing opposite daughter Judith (the lovely, compelling Troian Bellisario), source of lifelong resentment as his late son’s surviving twin, Spano stares through uncomprehending eyes into the abyss that yielded some of the world’s greatest dramatic literature from one of its saddest men.