While re-imagining William Shakespeare’s plays almost seems like old hat these days (just in the last couple of months in DC we saw everything from a speechless Othello to a tropics set Much Ado About Nothing), creating alternative Shakespeare universes seems to be big this particular entertainment season. Whether in big, splashy, decidedly shallow Hollywood productions (which we feel you should avoid) or in thoughtful, clever but still decidedly tongue-in-cheek theatrical outings like Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Equivocation @ Arena Stage (which we feel you should definitely NOT avoid) choose-your-own-Bard-adventure is apparently a trend to watch.
Naturally, this takes a certain amount of gall, skill, and a definite amount of confidence, so I am happy to report that Bill Cain, the playwright behind Equivocation, has plenty of all of the above. He brings us a clever look at the inner working of the so-called artistic integrity (everyone has a mortgage for that second biggest house in Stratford) while addressing some of the universal themes that made all of Shakespeare’s plays so timeless: revenge, family drama, friendship, humor, hubris and, yes, even twins.
The story, which is about “telling the truth in difficult times” imagines a world in which William “Shagspeare” (played by Anthony Heald whom you may recognize as the man Antony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter plans to have dinner “with” at the end of “Silence of the Lambs”) is commissioned by King James’ right hand Robert Cecil (imperiously flawed Jonathan Haugen) to write the “definitive” AND “true” dramatic portrayal of the famous Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder plot. The kind of play that could still be played … 50 YEARS FROM NOW.
The problem is there’s not much plot to the plot. And what little plot there is seems maligned by gaping holes and questions that no one seems to want to answer. Still, the commission is good and as such, the show must go on. And on.
With the help of his theater group (“We’re a cooperative venture”) and his practical daughter (played with dry wit and great no-nonsense attitude by Christine Albright), he sets out to write, and rewrite this show some more, while facing off with Cecil and the childish King. Nothing is quite as it seems and the main problem he faces is, “How does one tell the truth without risking death (or worse)?” This is where equivocation as a form of defense comes into play.
What follows is a couple of hours of persecution, exploration of religious themes, an analysis of the complexities of truth, and blessedly, humor (“Even a tragedy needs … something”) with themes from some of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays woven throughout. King Lear, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Richard III…if you’re a Shakespeare scholar, you’d have a ball inventing a drinking game out of all the references sprinkled liberally around every corner.
All of which is as wildly ambitious as it sounds (I am certain Bill Cain was called megalomaniacal once or twice in his career, but I am the kind of person that can appreciate that in a man and an artist) and could crumble at any point if not for the terrific cast which is both game and capable, fully deserving of the intelligent work they’re tasked with executing. Director Bill Rauch casts everyone (aside from Albright, whose Judith is struggling to be seen as a whole, independent person) in double roles, allowing a constant dynamic on the stage and handles the thin line between the “play” and “reality” with just the right amount of theatrical flair, recognizing the need for the dramatic pause and strong visual cues, in the middle of all that snappiness and meta-dialogue.
To sum up: if you think you know and like William Shakespeare, you should look forward to making an acquaintance with William “Shagspeare”. The play runs through January 1 at Arena Stage. Tickets ($40 to $85) are available through Arena’s Web site.