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Paulanne Simmons

"Equivocation" Reinvents Shakespeare

Directed by Gary Hynes
Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center 131 West 55 Street
Opened March 2, 2010
Tues. 7 p.m., Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sat. & Sun.
matinees 2 p.m. Sun. 7 p.m. & Wed. 2 p.m. when scheduled
Tickets: $75 (212) 581-1212
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 7, 2010

(L-R) David Furr as 'Sharpe,' Charlotte Perry as 'Judith,' Michael Countryman as 'Richard/Henry Garnett,' David Pittu (Hand on Countryman's shoulder) as 'Nate/Robert Cecil,' Remy Auberjonois as 'Armin/Edward Coke' and John Pankow as 'Shag' (aka Shakespeare.) Photo by joan Marcus.

If equivocation means to know how to tell the truth in hard times, as Bill Cain suggests in his new play, then the best of writers most certainly know how to equivocate. And there is no better equivocator in the English language than William Shakespeare.

In "Equivocation," Cain imagines what might have happened if King James I had asked Shakespeare to write a play about the failed attempt to blow up parliament known as the Gunpowder Plot. How would the great Bard manage to tell the truth, both artistically and morally, and at the same time, preserve his person and his company? Would he overcome his personal demons? Would he learn how to harness them to his creative inspiration? These are the questions Cain asks his director Garry Hynes and his tremendous ensemble cast to solve.

As the play moves easily between the real life situation and the play Shakespeare, or Shag (John Pankow) is trying to write, the actors morph from members of the acting troupe, Nate (David Pittu), Armin (Remy Auberjonois), Richard (Michael Coutryman) and Sharpe (David Furr), to the men involved in the plot or the English government.

Thus Pittu becomes Sir Robert Cecil, the king's conniving minister; Furr turns into the conspirator Thomas Wintour and King James I (complete with kilt and brogue); Countryman becomes the Jesuit priest Father Henry Garnet; and Auberjonois transforms into Robert Catesby, the leader of the Gunpowder Plot.

Shag's daughter, Judith (Charlotte Parry), is always herself, making sure her father wears clean clothing, gathering discarded papers and judging Shag as a playwright (she hates soliloquies because nothing good comes of them) and a father (he preferred her brother, whose death is a source of constant pain for them both).

(L-R) David Pittu as 'Nate,'Remy Auberjonois as 'Armin/Edward Coke' and David Furr as 'Sharpe.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

With costumes that evoke the Elizabethan era, modern times and pure fancy, and a set that is as grim as it is theatrical, "Equivocation" breaks through time and place to the heady frontiers where good meets evil, body meets soul, and the word becomes sublime.

Shakespeare lovers will find plenty of references here. The ghost of crazy King Lear hovers visible and invisible. Like Claudius, James I watches a play crafted to capture his conscience. Bloody hands cannot be washed clean. Drunken porters speak the truth.

Few writers can successfully contend with Shakespeare for attention onstage. But Cain, with the help of an inestimable cast and director, manages to hold his own, even when he, with tongue in cheek, allows Shakespeare to take over his play. Pittu, as Cecil hobbling across the stage, with his game leg, Furr's James I clapping his hands together in childish glee, Parry providing the only female voice in this very male world, and of course Pankow, stout, tired and aging, all live outside of the Shakespearean world as obviously as they were conceived in it.

In 21st century America, freedom of the press means writers generally don't have to equivocate. Still, one can't help but wonder what political, artistic or moral judgments lay beneath the surface of Cain's parable. What is he saying about political chicanery, artistic integrity and moral dilemmas in the modern world? Is equivocation now merely a game or a necessity for all those who would speak truth to power?


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