Just when you thought nothing more could be said about the origin of Shakespeare’s plays comes “Equivocation,” Bill Cain’s exhaustive and exhausting philosophical fantasia about authorial truth, monarchial lies, the power of make-
believe, the urgent search for authenticity and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Imported by Arena Stage from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the work strives to be a Niagara Falls of cleverness, incorporating a roundel of conceits that sometimes dance mischievously and other times merely bump clumsily into one another. Those with abundant passion for all things Bard-tastic may find much here to nod and chuckle over, even as “Equivocation” repeats itself and flirts dangerously with tedium. Others will — well, you get the picture.
Count me, however, as both Shakespeare lover and disappointed patron of director Bill Rauch’s verbose and ostentatious production. “Equivocation” has so many themes it seeks to develop, so many limbs it wants to go out on, so many spasms of actor-y energy it desires to perpetrate, that whatever potent points Cain intended to make are buried in rhetorical excess. My kingdom for a red pen!
Perhaps the structure of “Equivocation” is a mirror on the mind of a great playwright, as he attempts to sort, file and repurpose the stimuli of his immediate environment, filled with the competing and conflicting interests of his royal sponsors, artistic collaborators and family members. (The play lumbers to an end glibly with a condensed version of one of the works in the canon that’s meant to reveal, a la “Shakespeare in Love,” the ways in which “real” events inform Shakespeare’s stories and characters.) Or maybe it’s all a mind game, the misleadingly digressive strands of plot clashing in a grand, three-hour act of equivocation.
Yes, “Equivocation” goes on and on, in a wearying, gear-switching marathon. Via the actors in the company of Shakespeare and Richard Burbage (Richard Elmore), Cain cracks endless inside jibes, about the misogyny of “King Lear,” the comic usefulness of twins, the collective tally of the dead in the histories and tragedies. It’s all conjured by a mere six actors from the Oregon company, led by the estimable Broadway and film veteran Anthony Heald — his liver was destined to be served with fava beans in “The Silence of the Lambs” — as the embodiment of Shakespeare, here identified as Shag.
On set designer Christopher Acebo’s square, wooden platform, backed by a concave wall suggestive of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Rauch and his actors enter the whirlwind of the play and its myriad devices: Cain resorts to meta-theatrics, plays-within-plays and episodes of time-bending. For most of the evening, the action occurs early in the reign of Elizabeth I’s successor, James I, when hostility dividing the realm’s Protestants and Catholics still boils. Shag is summoned by the king’s henchman, Sir Robert Cecil (a Richard III-like Jonathan Haugen), for an unorthodox commission: a play detailing the so-called Gunpowder Plot, in which 13 Catholics were accused of planning to blow up Parliament and assassinate the king.
The story’s core is catnip for iambic pentameter-parsers and others who live to imagine the artistic, religious and political skirmishes a survival-conscious Shakespeare might have had to navigate. Shag is intrigued by the Cecil offer, not only because he’s being asked to adapt an account composed by the king (John Tufts), but also because the assignment would give him a unique opportunity to write about current events — to be able for once to eschew metaphor and poetry and set down the plain “truth.”
“Equivocation” posits that Shakespeare might have been enchanted by investigative journalism. For as Shag digs into the story of the conspiracy, interviewing the condemned alleged plotters, he discovers that his entire inquiry may be built on a lie. (We know Shag is perpetually befuddled by the repeated looks of wide-eyed astonishment Heald flashes our way.)
The notion of how Shakespeare’s voice might have been tempered by pragmatic concerns is fine dramatic fuel; one has only to examine the blatant agitprop of, for example, his “King Henry VIII” to understand that he knew his audience. The problem, though, is that as the facts grow murkier for Shag, “Equivocation” becomes ever muddier; Cain accords so many characters their say, has so much exposition to get through, so many acerbic asides to toss off, that we lose the evening’s urgent thread.
By the juncture at which the dramatist offers an elegy to Shakespeare, delivered by a daughter (Christine Albright) for whom Shag could not bring himself to express love, one is left with the impression that Cain imagined this as his one opportunity to get everything he ever wanted to say about the Bard off his chest. (You’ve heard of kitchen-sink drama; this feels like everything-but-the-kitchen-sink drama.)
The production’s technical elements are more than agreeable, especially the sparkling regalia in which costume designer Deborah M. Dryden bathes King James. The acting ranges from serviceable to supple, the latter illustrated best by Elmore, in a turn as a conscience-driven priest caught up in the Gunpowder hysteria, who demonstrates for Shag the serenity of moral certitude.
It’s possible that out of this formidable mound of drama a sleeker landscape is waiting to be groomed. At the moment, though, the map’s too busy.
by Bill Cain. Directed by Bill Rauch. Lighting, Christopher Akerlind; music and sound, Andre Pluess; voice and text, Rebecca Clark Carey. With Gregory Linington. About 3 hours. Through Jan. 1 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.