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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Pankow
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you're like most of the world, the issue of who "really" wrote William Shakespeare's plays is far less important than the words someone actually put on paper. So though Bill Cain's new play Equivocation, which just opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, is in the late Macbeth–King Lear era of Shakespeare's career, there's never any serious matter made about the who. But the what, why, where, when, and how all receive their full due, and make for a succulent examination of that sometimes bewildering place where art, politics, and humanity intersect.

Or, to put it in the terms the play itself uses, Equivocation is "how to speak the truth in difficult times." That's the trouble that Shakespeare himself, known here as Shag and played with a keen dry bluster by John Pankow, is having with his latest commission. He's been tasked by King James I, or rather his Prime Minister, Sir Robert Cecil (David Pittu), with writing a "true history" of the recently foiled Gunpowder Plot, from a manuscript provided by the King himself. But the work, lacking detail and nuance but stuffed with propaganda, does not make an elegant stage play. So what's a working stiff like Shag to do?

Ah, there's the rub - and the nub of this fascinating glimpse at the inspiration of inspiration. Shag is under constant assault from the other members of his playing company, The King's Men, to meet their financial obligations, sort out their personal squabblings (the aging Richard Burbage, played by Michael Countryman, is constantly at odds with the young and handsome Richard Sharpe, played by David Furr), and turn out something theatrically fulfilling. (The "experimental" Lear just isn't cutting it.) That Shag is still tortured by the death of his son, and of having to deal with the daughter (Judith, played by Charlotte Parry), he's never been able to relate to, does not help.

Cain does have the typical bit of fun with playing from his future vantage point ("I believe your plays will still be being done," Cecil muses at one point, "50 years from now"). But for the most part, he's woven together a deeply compelling story that works not only as a chronicle of the creation of an unknown play and one of The Bard's most famous, but also as a critique of the individual's responsibility in an infinitely politicized world.

The colliding personalities of the King's Men, who also include a delightful Remy Auberjonois as the token (and improbably bearded) boy player, present several different facets of this, with the pragmatists, the capitalists, and the artists all having their say. But more central still is Shag's attempts to bring balance and detail to his Gunpowder Plot play by interviewing its participants. This thrusts him into the conflict for reasons he doesn't expect and can't always cope with, but draw out of him the commitment and cleverness both he and Cain need to tell one must-hear story under an avalanche of must-not-hear conditions.

Admittedly, the interviews and their (usually bloody) aftermaths are not as interesting as the way Shag and his cohorts deal with what they learn. This does slow down several chunks of the play, especially in the second act, and veers ever-so-slightly into the pretentiousness that Cain otherwise so skillfully avoids.

But the shape of the action, showing how Shag evolves from a one-dimensional creative into a more all-encompassing human being because of the atrocities he witnesses and must write about, is as exact and involving as can be. The climactic scene in which the final product is performed, with all the characters reflecting (whether from the stage or the audience) on its immediate significance to them, is a cunning and captivating collage illustrating the real ways in which theatre can (or sometimes can't) transform its witnesses. And Judith's final soliloquy, musing on the personal and perennial impact of her father's work, is a legitimately touching analysis of a man who - in spite of everything else - was a father, too.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of both the play and this production is that they organize all of this - and more - into a completely cohesive work. Director Garry Hynes has emphatically staged the show on a Globe Theatre–meets–St. Ann's Warehouse set (by Francis O'Connor, who also did the modern-dress-with-ancient-accessories costumes) that locates the action in the center of a time warp, but feels unerringly right from start to finish. David Weiner's lights are instrumental in further defining in what location and under what circumstances events are taking place, and gracefully ushering scenes from light-footed comedy to gash-inducing tragedy and back again.

David Furr and David Pittu.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Most of the actors are adept at negotiating those transitions, and delivering tightly connected performances. The unusually intense Pankow is particularly good - he allows not a drop of deification to infest Shag, and the resulting reality makes his grandiose achievements even more satisfying. Countryman is doing some of his best work yet as both Burbage and the chiefly equivocating conspirator, anchoring every drop of their bluster in a wrenching sensitivity. Furr is impressive in roles as diverse as the young go-getter, a broken prisoner, and King James himself. And Pittu remains his own cherished institution, putting his off-kilter approach to golden work as the largely humorless Cecil and several other smaller roles.

Parry is tasked with one of the play's most difficult challenges, as Judith comments on the action more than she participates in it. And though Parry is moving in her soliloquies, her reluctant style seems at odds with how the character is used in scenes with others. Too often, she fades into the background rather than proving to us the one thing that is so important for the character: that she's the most important person in Shag's life that he doesn't know.

He starts to come around eventually, of course, and it's yet another element of the play's magic that we care just as much about whether he'll succeed with that as we do whether he'll actually finish the Gunpowder Plot play and avoid the gallows. That's no small accomplishment. Cain brings Shakespeare down to our own imperfect level, but proves that world-changing things can emerge even from such averageness. Whether or not those great works should, or will, be seen is a separate question. That this engrossing engagement of Equivocation should be, however, is beyond all doubt.

Through March 28
New York City Center —Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
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