At the intermission of Equivocation, this summer’s traditional non-Shakespeare-but-related-to-Shakespeare offering from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, I found myself exultant, almost floating along the aisle to the lobby. I’m so grateful to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival for bringing us this play, I said to a friend. It’s brilliant. And so it seemed — inventive, original, deeply clever and on a daring and constant teeter-totter between tragedy and comedy. Playwright Bill Cain postulates that William Shakespeare (Shagspeare or Shag here, played by a strong Michael Morgan) is summoned by Sir Robert Cecil (Rodney Lizcano, wonderfully cunning and evil) to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot — the notorious conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and with them the sitting king, James I.
The task is fraught and its ethics murky. The Gunpowder Plot was hatched by Catholics, and Catholics had been viciously persecuted in England since James’s ancestor, Henry VIII, anxious to divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn, broke with Rome. But what’s the truth about the plot? Shag wonders. Is it possible there never was a plot in the first place, or that the reality differs from the story being told? How is that story being used by the Crown to further its own purposes? And also by Robert Cecil, who may know far more than he lets on, and whom the king treats with a corrosive mixture of trust and contempt, calling him “my little beagle”? And what about the terrible tortures endured by the captured conspirators and the gruesome executions awaiting them? In case anyone doesn’t know exactly what the term “hanged, drawn and quartered” means, there’s a very explicit description by a guard at the Tower of London, where Shag visits one of the prisoners, Thomas Wintour (Hunter Ringsmith). If he offends the king, Shag is likely to end up in the Tower himself.
The idea that governments manipulate reality, the danger of speaking truth to power, the winking allusions to torture (“Isn’t torture against English law?” says James, all pseudo-innocence) — all these make Equivocation very contemporary. Think of the courage it took for Stephen Colbert to speak truth to President George W. Bush at the 2006 Washington Correspondents’ Dinner when almost no public figure was speaking out, and now imagine Bush having the power to have Colbert instantly hauled off to one of his infamous black prisons.
Other plot points include Shag’s unconscionable treatment of his daughter Judith (Elise Collins), whom he resents because her twin brother died at birth while she survived, and his struggle to hold together his company, the King’s Men. There are interesting perspectives on Shakespeare’s work, too: The humpbacked Cecil, a facsimile of Shakespeare’s Richard III whose father supposedly supplied the model for Polonius in Hamlet, has an utterly cynical analysis of how Shakespeare threads the needle and flatters royalty in his plays, and in a hysterically funny scene, we’re shown the puzzlement of the King’s Men as they rehearse King Lear. Why is this guy wandering around the heath in his underwear? And what’s with the unfunny Fool and a muddy, naked guy (Ringsmith) who’s sane but pretending to be mad?
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All of this happens in the first act, and despite the many threads, everything coheres. But in the second act, the play becomes talky and diffuse. We meet Father Henry Garnet (a fine performance by John Hutton), the virtuous priest accused of helping foment the Gunpowder Plot, and he and Shag conduct a long and interesting discussion about truth, deception and equivocation. King James (the versatile and entertaining Ringsmith yet again) has appeared earlier; here he moves to the fore, watching the production of the newly penned Macbeth that Shag, in his own act of equivocation, has switched for the Gunpowder Plot play because it does the necessary job of indirectly excoriating the king’s enemies and praising his legitimacy. Unfortunately, the parodied segments from Macbeth are long, shrill and not remotely funny.
Meanwhile, Judith is still uttering clever cynicisms and hoping for love, and poor Garnet is suffering pangs of terror at his impending execution. It’s all too much, and obscures any spine.
But Equivocation still delivers moments of pleasure, and the ending, movingly performed by Collins with just the right mixture of toughness and vulnerability, is a joy.
Equivocation,presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 6, University Theatre, University of Colorado Boulder, 303-492-0554, coloradoshakes.org.