By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Near the start of Bill Cain’s new play, Equivocation, at the Geffen Playhouse, William Shakespeare’s acting troupe is rehearsing King Lear. The actors are at their wits’ end. Any of the long, rambling speeches, they say, can be transposed without consequence. They complain that the randomness of ideas makes the lines difficult to memorize. One idea doesn’t follow from the previous. Cause and effect is standard dramatic form, they insist, which King Lear shirks, especially in the later scenes on the heath.
Shakespeare, here named “Shag” (Joe Spano, playing the aging Bard with a prosaic world-weariness), has two explanations. One, he’s trying to write a play that isn’t about revenge, and two, sometimes larger truths defy the contrivances of dramatic structure. Beginnings, middles and endings have little to do with the elliptical and endless continuums of events in nature, and history.
That latter defense of King Lear is probably also the best defense of Cain’s digressive play, which holds up the elegant theme of truth-telling, like a blanket meant to cover and unify the multiple plots, then takes it through at least one too many spin cycles so that the fabric starts to fray. Yet if one believes Shag, perhaps the frayed result comes closer to telling the truth than a more orderly construct. Equivocation speaks more through its own, intricate weave of ideas than through its sequence of events.
King James’ ambassador, Sir Robert Cecil (Connor Tinneer, beautifully slipping between the physically deformed Cecil and the nimble actor Nate in Shag’s acting troupe) commissions Shag to write a play on behalf of the Scottish-born king (the pleasingly blithe Patrick J. Adams). This would be the first time Shag has ever attempted a contemporary “topical” play — a propaganda piece depicting the capture of the 17th-century domestic terrorists who attempted to blow up the King and Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot. (Though there were no explosions, and the conspirators were captured and hung, Guy Fawkes Day continues to be celebrated in Britain with fireworks, to honor the stymieing of that plot.)
Things start to get murky for Shag when Cecil demands that he not be a character in the play. As Shag does his research, interviewing prisoners charged with conspiracy in the plot, he discovers a number of disturbing truths: Forensic evidence calls into question the existence of any terrorist plot at all; the “plot” may have simply concerned some attempts at redistributing dubiously obtained wealth; and Cecil, who insisted that he not be a character in Shag’s play, may have been pivotally culpable in contriving an entirely bogus “plot” in order to protect some profiteers.
So what’s a self-respecting playwright to do, in a land where they’re cutting half-dead prisoners down from the gallows and disemboweling the still-conscious wretches? (One such scene is depicted with harrowing verisimilitude, while Shag watches with helpless disgust.)
When King James struts across the stage saying that England is a civilized country that doesn’t torture people — Adams does so with a twinkle in his eye — it’s hard to miss the satire of Dick Cheney, or of the parallel between the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot and that from 9/11.
What’s the difference between a political lie and a literary one? Responding to concerns that one of his more candid drafts will send them all to the gallows, Shag replies, “Treason? It’s literary criticism.”
The answer to Shag’s dilemma of trying to tell the truth and avoid being disemboweled comes from one of the accused, the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet (Harry Groener). Cain, it should be noted, is himself a Jesuit, and the real Garnet wrote a treatise on the moral justification of “equivocation,” here illustrated by an oft-repeated paradox: If the king is in your house, and foreign invaders knock on your door and ask if the king is inside, how, as a loyal citizen, do you tell the truth? According to Garnet, you answer the question that lies beneath the question — not “Is the king inside?” but “May we come in and seize the king who we believe is hiding in your house?” Rather than answer “Yes,” you may now answer “No,” and be in the clear, morally speaking.
So, if you can stack the idea of telling the truth by using Garnet’s formula (a cover for lying) upon the idea of telling the truth with a beginning, a middle and an end (a cover for literary contrivance) upon the idea of telling the truth by writing King Lear (a cover for throwing literary contrivance to the winds), upon the idea of writing Macbeth (a cover for overzealous pols with Scottish brogues), upon Cecil’s comment on the moral ambiguity of the Bard’s “crowd-pleasing” canon, then you arrive at a rich tapestry of variations built upon a theme. And it’s a quite beautiful accomplishment. That said, when you add Shag’s grief over the death of his son, and how he takes it out on his spurned daughter, Judith (Troian Bellisario), it’s just one digression too many — at least for this viewer. Shag really doesn’t need a domestic psychological motive for his behaviors. One would think that seeing a prisoner screaming at having his bowels removed, sans anesthesia, would be motive enough to come up with some creative solutions to the paradoxes of telling the truth from a bullshit idea contrived and commissioned by a despotic and vainglorious king.
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