A&E road trip: ‘Equivocation’ in D.C.

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(Note: Sparked by a Creative Renewal Grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, I'm seeing as much theater around the country . Here's the latest.)

One of the many, many pleasures of Bill Cain’s play “Equivocation” is how deftly the playwright constructs a rough draft of a play that Shakespeare never wrote.

That fragment-of-a-play-within-a-play is based on the alleged “Gunpowder Plot” of Guy Fawkes and company—a story that the Bard is ordered to write in order to elevate the stature of the buffoonish King and denigrate his enemies.

Shakespeare—or Shagspeare as he is known here—knows the difference between propaganda and literature. But he isn’t given much choice in the matter: Write the play or else.

Well, we know he didn’t write it. But like Shakespeare before him, Bill Cain isn’t shy about taking a bit of history and manipulating it for theatrical pleasure. And in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production being staged at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage through Jan. 1, he’s teamed with a near ideal cast and a savvy director to pull it all together.

In their hands, “Equivocation” is a piece that takes the best elements of such costume dramas as “A Man for All Seasons,” mixes in a reluctant hero a la Rick from “Casablanca,” and finds a great balance of bon mots (“Plays have beginnings and ends—two lies right there.”) and moving dramatic moments, adding up to a tremendously satisfying evening.

I wasn’t convinced that the fourth wall needed to be broken—although having Shag’s daughter (a movingly restrained Christine Albright) criticize soliloquies in soliloquy form was fun. And the second act lacked the moment-to-moment theatrical joy of the first, occasionally seeming to try to convince us of things we’ve already accepted. But those quibbles aren’t meant to diminish the achievement here. Director Bill Rauch wisely avoids underlining the contemporary too obviously, allowing the costumes and set to stay in period and the audience to meet the show half way to draw its own parallels to today. The design is spare but effectively so.

Anthony Heald (TV watchers may remember him as a regular on “Boston Public”) plays Shagspeare as a man accustomed to twisting facts, just uncomfortable being ordered to do so. He still hasn’t come to terms with the death of his son and keeps the boy’s twin sister at an emotional distance. Jonathan Haugen, another Oregon Shakespeare Festival regular, should receive two best supporting actor awards for playing both the King’s emotionally and physically twisted right-hand-man Cecil and one of the Shakespearian troupers. (My only problem with Haugen—his massive torso tattoo, which distracted in what should have been a vulnerable near-nude scene for Cecil.) They, along with John Tufts, Richard Elmore, and Gergory Linington, made me jealous of those living close enough to Ashland, Oregon, who get to see their work on a regular basis.

For a sample, click here.

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