The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 might not resonate with American auds the way it does in England, where Guy Fawkes Day is observed with festive bonfires. But that cultural drawback shouldn’t detract from the considerable pleasures of Bill Cain’s dazzling drama, “Equivocation.” The flames of political debate are stoked when “Shagspeare” is charged with writing a play about the treasonous attack on the monarchy of King James I. Once the acting company starts airing their grievances with the play and its author, “Shag” finds himself challenged as a playwright, a father, and a loyal subject.
The play comes to town trimmed by more than a half-hour from its premiere production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. If this ambitious work still feels weighty, blame (or credit) its multiple layers of thought — about the cutthroat Jacobean politics of the period, the limits of artistic freedom in a repressive religious climate, the contentious nature of theatrical collaboration, and the built-in conflicts of commissioned art projects, as well as the more unpredictable pressures on artists who are only human.
If the dramatic focus tends to wobble from one ideological point to another, the unifying idea — that all “truth” is equivocal when politics are at play — holds firm, even to the present day.
Cain, who ran the Boston Shakespeare Company for seven seasons and penned the multi-award-winning “Stand-Up Tragedy,” scores a strike for the universality of his theme by adopting a quasi-modern idiom that never entirely gives up its historic roots. Despite the easy flow of bluntly realistic dialogue, the occasional period inflection (“Prithee, nuncle, come back!”) keeps reminding us where we are in history.
And where is that, exactly? As visually defined by Francis O’Connor’s stark set and David Weiner’s somber lighting — a few sticks of furniture enclosed by sliding pewter-metal panels and bathed in ominous shadows — it’s a forbidding environment that serves equally well as palace, playhouse and torture chamber. A place of “Huis Clos” for all times.
This anonymous space becomes the seat of royal power at the beginning of the play, when David Pittu’s deliciously devious Sir Robert Cecil demands of John Pankow’s endearingly unheroic Shag that he write the “official” version of the Gunpowder Plot. Furthermore, the play must be performed in three weeks’ time by the King’s Men, the acting collective whose royal patron — King James I, the Scottish monarch who ascended the throne after the death of Elizabeth I — narrowly escaped being blown to bits by Guy Fawkes and company.
“My lord, we don’t do current events,” the playwright protests, drawing back in horror. “We do histories — true histories of the past.”
At which point, Cecil smacks his lips and demolishes Master Shagspeare’s claims of artistic integrity by launching into a devastating and quite brilliant analysis of the playwright’s own subtle “art of cynical audience manipulation” through “endless and universal flattery.”
And that’s the way it goes, scene by striking scene, in Garry Hynes’ stringently lucid and technically pristine production of this witty play. Each seemingly unanswerable political argument is met with an equally unassailable attack on the theatrical presumption that artistic truth is … well, truthful.
It falls to one of the plotters, Jesuit priest Father Henry Garnet (in a harrowing perf from the estimable Michael Countryman), to explain to Shag the equivocal nature of truth. “Answer the question beneath the question,” he instructs him on how to reconcile his writing dilemma. “Answer the question that’s really being asked.”
In demanding a play about the Gunpowder Plot, it seems King James (David Furr) was really asking for a play more like “Macbeth,” which becomes the improbable, but hilarious resolution to the company’s problems. The Machiavellian Cecil, who wanted vindication for his sadistic treatment of the terrorists, is furious at being foiled. But the Scottish sovereign, a superstitious bumpkin in Furr’s irreverently boyish perf, is so delighted he waltzes off with Remy Auberjonois’ burly Lady Macbeth.
Cain isn’t nearly as successful when he applies his thesis on the paradoxical nature of truth in art and politics to Shag’s personal life. Charlotte Parry is a quietly haunting presence as his neglected daughter, Judith, and her scenes with Pankow are touching. But the portrait of the dramatist as a guilty parent feels contrived.
Better a stiff debate on the efficacy of torture or a backstage brawl between jealous actors than another maudlin scene about the poor parenting skills of literary geniuses.