Equivocation -- Theater Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Words, words, words -- they come at us from all directions in Bill Cain's "Equivocation," a passionate and boldly designed drama on the power of language to enlighten and elevate but just as importantly to lie and deceive.

Language is tricky, no doubt about it, especially when those who disseminate it have the power to enforce its dictates or control its spin. What better way to illustrate the point than to place the great master of language, William Shakespeare, on the historical hot seat and watch him squirm. The play was well-received at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the summer, so be assured that Shag (as he's called) is treated with the respect he deserves.

The drama is set in 1605, shortly after the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament and kill the king has been discovered and the alleged conspirators apprehended. Shag (Joe Spano), the most famous writer of the age, is approached by King James' devious prime minister, Robert Cecil (Connor Trinneer), to write a version of the plot that will favor the king and help snuff out dissent. Much is at stake as England is a badly divided country over religious issues that have precipitated the conspiracy.

Gradually, Shag is drawn into a swampy moral quandary that tests his character, conscience, artistic values and close relationship with his struggling band of actors. It's not that he sympathizes with the conspirators, but he feels bound as a writer to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. It also becomes clear to him that torture -- supposedly forbidden by the state -- is one of Cecil's favorite pasttimes.

The ingredients of the play, one might have noticed, bear a certain resemblance to recent and not-so-recent events in the news. The parallels, however, might not be as clear as the playwright thinks and can cut in many different directions.

The play sails along fairly nicely in Act 1, largely because of the originality, wit and nimbleness of the writing. The battle of wits going on between Shag and Cecil is sharply defined, as are the comic scenes between the equivocating Bard and his rowdy actors.

Act 2 takes on an overstuffed, sometimes academic tone as Cain seems to feel obliged to leave out nothing. One of the alleged conspirators is Henry Garnet (Harry Groener), a Jesuit priest (as is the playwright) who takes on the role of explainer-in-chief for matters historical, linguistic and philosophical. Much of what he has to say is simply self-evident.

Most of the actors play several parts and acquit themselves well. Trinneer's twisted Cecil is a nasty piece of work, and Groener's Richard Burbage, Shag's trusted friend, is a strong presence throughout. Spano is sympathetic and believable as the tortured Shag, and Patrick J. Adams and Brian Henderson lend strong support in various roles. Troian Bellisario needs to speak up a bit more as Judith, Shag's peculiarly perceptive daughter.

This is a demanding play to stage, cutting back and forth in time, place and character, and director David Esbjornson does well to keep matters as fluid as he does. Eventually he is undone by the excesses of Act 2, but along the way there are many lines and nuggets of insight to admire.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through Dec. 20)
Cast: Joe Spano, Harry Groener, Connor Trinneer, Brian Henderson, Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario
Playwright: Bill Cain
Director: David Esbjornson