It’s a drama. No, it’s a satire. No, it’s a modern-day political comedy. No, it’s a story of a family. Or maybe it’s all of these. Or none of them. It’s impossible to tell.
Equivocation, an ambitious new play by Bill Cain currently in performances at City Center’s Stage One is a confusing combination of too many ideas and not enough organization. A fictionalized account of William Shakespeare (here, referred to as Shag-speare, or “Shag” by his friends) caught in a tale of political intrigue, it sounds good on paper but becomes a muddled mess onstage.
Commissioned by Sir Robert Cecil (David Pittu), Shag (John Pankow) has been ordered to write a dramatization of the Gunpowder Plot, using an account by King James as his sole source of information. Conflicted both politically and artistically, Shag begins to investigate the actual occurrences of that infamous evening and is quickly drawn in deeper than he would have liked. Throw in a tempestuous group of actors, a petulant and withdrawn daughter and some extremely confusing staging, and you have Equivocation in a nutshell.
“We are all fools,” Shag states mournfully several times throughout the show. “All noble. All royal.” A similar sentiment is echoed by the staging of this play, which seems to be saying, “We are all modern. And classical. And political. And good. And bad.” For the majority of the play, the actors are costumed in modern clothing such as jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers. But once in a while they don old-fashioned robes or capes. They speak in modern jargon – most of the time. Sometimes they slip into classical dialogue. They’re acting in this play, then they’re acting the play Shag is writing. One minute, Pittu is playing Robert Cecil but if you blink, you might miss him switching to Thomas Percy. It quickly becomes confusing – and exhausting – to keep up with.
One of the few consistent aspects of Equivocation is that it is dark. No curtain covers this stage, and from the moment the audience enters the theater, they are able to view the set, which looks exactly how one would imagine a torture chamber looks. Varying shades of gunmetal grey adorn the walls and floor, which, short of a few pieces of stark, stiff furniture, is bare. The play delivers on the promises of the set; several torture scenes are included and they leave little to the imagination. Grisly depictions of beheadings are performed and they are not pleasant to witness.
The beheadings aren’t the only uncomfortable part of Equivocation. It’s easy to draw parallels between the 17th-century English monarchy and 20th-century American democracy, especially during the conversations about torture. When inquired about the methods used to obtain confession, Sir Robert Cecil states firmly, “Torture is completely against our laws.”
“So it does not happen,” the king adds.
“We are a country of laws, Majesty.”
“So there is no torture,” the king repeats.
To anyone who has watched television, read a newspaper or flipped through a magazine in the past few years, this statement may sound familiar. And just in case you didn’t get the message, a priest (skillfully performed by Michael Countryman) has an encounter or two with Shag, just to make it even more clear.
The second-act twist, which involves the creation and performance of Macbeth (they do say the name out loud onstage), brings the play to life and is by far the most entertaining part of the show, eliciting some real laughter from the audience. David Furr’s easy switching between the roles of King James and Sharpe, and Remy Auberjonois as Lady MacBeth (and the object of the king’s affection) also bring some much-needed levity to the production. But it’s too little, too late, and what is supposed to be a bittersweet familial ending didn’t evoke any sympathy or sadness from this critic. Instead, it brought relief.