Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of A Second Chance
Cain posits a meeting between Shag and Robert Cecil (Jonathan Haugen), advisor to King James (John Tufts), in the aftermath of the foiled Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, Catholics determined to reclaim England from Protestantism attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, as well as the king and his family, with 36 barrels of gunpowder. Cecil calls on Shag to produce the authorized version of the story, which will stand as the last word as far as the public is concerned.
Shag and his actors soon realize that, since the gunpowder never explodes, the possible play would have no climax and, therefore, no genuine drama. The playwright decides to go beyond the official documents, to the dismay of Cecil, and ultimately creates a play that has only an oblique connection to the Gunpowder Plotbut is immediately familiar to modern audiences.
Cain borrows from Shakespeare's own language, incorporating scenes from other plays (the company is working on King Lear at the time of Cecil's request) and throwing in numerous in-jokes about which characters get to perform soliloquies and the playwright's interest in killing kings.
The problem is that, as the complications pile up and Shag is forced to "equivocate" (manipulate the truth for a greater purpose), the play becomes cumbersome and numbing. A little epigrammatic language ("Stories can't be true. That's why they're stories," or "What is politics but family writ large?") goes a long way, and following the plots within plots may not be worth the effort. Even Shag's neglected daughter Judith (Christine Albright) wanders in and out, doing laundry and decrying the excesses of the theatrical temperament.
Director Bill Rauch has forged a strong working relationship with his six-member cast, anchored by Heald's restless intelligence and Haugen's manipulation. Christopher Acebo's scenic design evokes the curved walls of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, while Deborah M. Dryden's costumes range from the everyday dress of the actors to the king's gold-embroidered outfit and Cecil's luxurious fur-trimmed robe.