Teamwork is a recurring theme in “Equivocation,” playwright Bill Cain’s humorous, history-inspired drama at Arena Stage. There’s the uneasy alliance that the plot hinges on, in which William Shakespeare (“Shag,” played by Anthony Heald) is commissioned by the government to write a play for King James I (John Tufts) that presents the “official” version of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.
Then there’s Shag’s theatrical troupe, a small team of actors who proudly refer to themselves as a “cooperative venture.” The playwright shares income and responsibilities with these colleagues, who in turn fearlessly share critiques of Shag’s work.
This Shakespeare is no solo act. Nor is he oblivious to — or revered by — the society around him. “Equivocation” places Shag in his proper historical context — in his 40s in 1605 and 1606 — and reveals him to be an artist just trying to make a living during a period of religious and political upheaval.
Shag struggles with fatherhood, writer’s block and political beliefs, as well as the concept of equivocation, a term that doubles as an important metaphor for the play: “how to speak the truth in difficult times,” as one character says. It’s a groundbreaking view of an enigmatic historical figure, says director Bill Rauch.
“I’m a guy who has thought a lot about Shakespeare,” Rauch says. “But this play opened doors for me to think in new ways about how his life — in terms of the Catholic-Protestant schism in England and various personal events — affected his work. I absolutely approach his canon differently now.”
Bringing Shag (who really did go by “Shagspeare” sometimes, according to Heald, but who was probably never commissioned to write about the Gunpowder Plot) to life was daunting to Anthony Heald, who calls his character “the most astonishing creative artist and yet a complete cipher.” Making it a bit easier is the fact that all six cast members worked on the play’s premiere in 2009 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, an experience that forged their deep bond. “The depth of trust between the six of us is unparalleled,” Heald says.
Sounds like another successful cooperative venture.
“Equivocation” centers on the events and aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholics were caught planning to blow up British Parliament and assassinate the king on Nov. 5, 1605. Historians still don’t know the origins of the plot or who tipped off authorities the night before the attacks were to take place.