Updated 03/10/2010 12:03 AM
NY1 Theater Review: "Equivocation"
The Manhattan Theatre Club's staging of "Equivocation" is a new work which offers up a look at a dramatic chapter in the life of William Shakespeare and the creation of one his major tragedies. Time Out New York contributing critic David Cote filed the following review.
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Any theater person will tell you to never, ever refer to “Macbeth” in a theater. If you quote 'the Scottish play' it’s bad luck; the tragedy is cursed. So the cast and crew of Bill Cain’s smart if overstuffed "Equivocation" are probably on guard as their play speculates on how and why Shakespeare wrote you know what.
For anyone who knows Shakespeare or Jacobean history, "Equivocation" is intellectual catnip. Here, the Bard is known as Shagspeare, and he’s played with a nice mix of wariness and wile by the appealing John Pankow. Shag is commissioned by the snaky spymaster Sir Robert Cecil, played by David Pittu, to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In this notorious incident, a group of Catholics tried to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate James I. Shag is reluctant to dramatize this hot topic, but filthy lucre and kingly insistence are hard to resist.
When our playwright starts to investigate the motives and players behind the failed attempt, including the mysterious Jesuit priest Robert Garnet, he begins to glimpse the terrifying machinery of the Jacobean surveillance state. How can Shag’s play use the Jesuit practice of equivocation -- truth-telling within a lie -- to expose themes of political extremism, outlaw religion and loyalty while catching the conscience of the villainous Cecil as well?
Bill Cain’s breathless collage of history, literary theory and self-referential humor is a near-Stoppardian coup. Near, but not quite there. True, issues of 17th-century terrorism, torture and propaganda are keenly relevant. And Cain clearly reveres Shakespeare, but also builds in a political and ethical critique of the genius. But Garry Hynes and her talented cast of six struggles to keep this machine of too many moving parts running smoothly. Solid cast, seasoned director, and a really clever script just can’t offset Cain’s structural tangle and his conceptual overreaching.
Vaulting ambition destroyed one fictional bloody-minded Scot I won’t name, but sadly it’s not enough to make this impressive piece an unequivocal success.