A bit of advice that my first editor drilled in me: When writing for an audience, it is not about you.
Writing may very well be a deeply solitary act, but when done properly, the final product – whether read or listened to – should make the writer’s voice disappear, inhabit a narrative role. For playwrights, the focus should not only be on the audience but also the actors who manifest their words onto the stage.
But in “Equivocation,” playwright Bill Cain’s writing voice is nearly always present. The writing is intellectual, impressive and dense, but Cain’s preoccupation with pontificating and pressing his knowledge upon us gives the play a fits-and-starts quality.
Now, the Marblehead Little Theater’s ensemble in “Equivocation” – which opened Oct. 14 and runs through Sunday – richly captures the world of play, make-believe and pretend. The cast is nimble, energetic and playful, and no one is called upon to do more than the Bard himself (Kevin Walker).
It’s 1606. King James I via Sir Robert Cecil (Brian Casey) has commissioned Will Shakespeare to produce a fabricated account of the Gunpowder Plot – a thwarted attempt by 13 Catholics to blow up Parliament and assassinate the king – for the Globe Theater’s stage.
From the king’s demand emerges the play’s centerpiece conflict: Shakespeare’s internal struggle to adapt a play about the Gunpowder Plot baked in lies. Feeding the king’s propaganda machine doesn’t sit well with Shakespeare. Through this dissension, the play explores matters of truth, moral obligation and mortality.
The equivocation light bulb turns on during Shakespeare’s tender, turned-confessional exchange with the Rev. Henry Garnet (James Butterfield), a Jesuit priest facing treasonous charges. The priest teaches Shakespeare that he can meet the king’s demands without compromising through equivocation: Concealing the truth in language that carries ambiguous weight or several meanings.
Shakespeare also visits a shackled Thomas Wintour (John Melczer) to gather source material, and it’s in the conspirators’ company that Shakespeare grows more and more empathetic. The visits only strengthen his convictions, and these one-to-ones are moments that stand out in a very busy and verbose play.
John Fogle and Butterfield direct a production with seamless transitions on a simplistic yet effective set: The entire play takes place in front of a gritty concave wall caked in dirt. On the bare-bones set, the cast cleverly does so much with so little – play practice, conversation by a candle light, sword fighting, a pair of executions among other feats.
Shakespeare visiting contemporaries who may land in one of his plays is a fascinating concept. From Henry V and King John to Julius Cesar and Richard III, he’s often generations removed from the real-life characters whom he writes about in his histories and tragedies.
On the peripheral of “Equivocation,” Shakespeare wrestles with his relationships from a quartet of tight-knit Globe actors – Richard (Daniel Kelly), Sharpe (Eric Roberts), Nate (Dave Foye) and Armin (Stephen Turner) – to his daughter, Judith (Rebecca Greene). She was the twin to Hamnet, whose young death hit Shakespeare hard.
Judith bemoans her father’s penchant for writing long soliloquies while presiding over one herself to hilarious effect. She is the sole character to break the fourth wall, and her gravitation toward life’s more morbid offerings supplies a particular brand of humor. Greene and Walker’s playful banter between daughter and father are some of this production’s best moments.
Much to the chagrin of Cecil – whom Casey embodies with a salty flair – a jovial King James takes a likening to Shakespeare. He loves the play that Shakespeare and Co. ultimately stage: “Macbeth.” A scene in which Turner inhabits Lady Macbeth, whom the king ends up fancying, is a delightful romp.
The play is the first since the death of MLT powerhouses Ginny Morton and Henry Dembowski. To the pair’s memories, the cast dedicated their “Equivocation” performances. To buy tickets, visit https://bit.ly/3TADnSB