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.
David Esbjornson directs a gothic and somewhat brooding, naturalistic and almost three-hour production on his own austere set of platforms and pillars — a production that springs to life when the actors portray actors, and the play becomes about the theater, and the domestic squabbles within it.
There’s a playwright-character (Cody Henderson), too, in Land of the Tigers, a satire of theater-making in Los Angeles. The production, written by the company Burglars of Hamm (Carolyn Almos, Matt Almos, Jon Beauregard and Albert Dayan), is being reprised at the Lost Studio after a successful run at Sacred Fools Theater earlier this year. Each act is an interlinked play, the first setting up the second. In the latter, a tyrannical director named Michael Livingston (Dean Gregory) traffics in emotional abuse as a rationalization of his creative process.
With the exceptions of one performer (Ruth Silveira), who walks out after the director calls her a “cunt” in public, and the playwright, Brian, the rest of the company in this ensemble-created project is all too willing to accept Michael’s strutting self-importance; his guru posturing; his insistence that, on command, each tell a harrowing personal secret; and his blather about entering a “sacred circle” in order to tell the truth through art. Susan, a zaftig woman in the motley troupe (a wonderfully self-righteous performance by Rebecca Metz), winds up walking Michael’s dog on a weekend he’s out of town, as well as providing other, more salacious services. Susan’s devotion stems from a bottomless pit of loneliness and need, which is the core of the satire.
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Brian’s frustration is that they’ve squandered months on acting exercises and have yet to come up with a script, or even a shape. Michael’s retort sounds strikingly like Shag’s defense of King Lear — that the truth doesn’t have a literary shape, the difference being that Shag had provided a script when he made that argument. Michael has simply provided a series of power trips over the fragile egos of his emotionally vulnerable thespians. When, to address his frustration, Brian arrives at one rehearsal with his script in hand, Michael dismisses Brian’s effort without even glancing at a page.
All of what I’ve described above (there are other twists of plot and logic) unfolds in Act 2, which explains and reveals the bizarre allegory presented in Act 1, a cross between Planet of the Apes and The Crucible: Once upon a time, tigers ruled the earth. Eventually, they learned how to stand erect and form a civilization — here depicted with the half-men, half-tigers in Ann Closs-Farley’s gorgeous 18th-century costumes and powdered wigs — punctuated with Parliamentary discourse, incest and primal mating rituals. There’s also a concerned scientist (Jack Kehler) who tries and fails to open a discussion about global cooling. After their performance, the actors drop their characters, assemble on the stage and spell out with teary-eyed, stoic solemnity all of the metaphors we’ve just seen. Act 1, presented with no context, is both provocative and jaw-droppingly lame, albeit with fantastic performances by Hugo Armstrong, Paul Byrne, Tim Sheridan and Devin Sidell (as the she-tiger, Sheba). Act 2 is the context, of course, the story of how they came up with this debacle, which is perhaps less painful than how they came tobelieve in it. Matt Almos directs.
EQUIVOCATION | By BILL CAIN | GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Through Dec. 20 | (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com.
LAND OF THE TIGERS | By BURGLARS OF HAMM | Presented by FRANTIC REDHEAD PRODUCTIONS in association with BURGLARS OF HAMM and the LOST STUDIO | 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. | Resumes Dec. 4, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (added perf Sun., Dec. 13, 8 p.m.); through Dec. 13 | (310) 440-0221