Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Play: Suitable Lies

Equivocation by Bill Cain, Directed by Bill Rauch, Seattle REP, through 13 December.

There are plays by Shakespeare and plays about Shakespeare, and I think the latter outnumber the former. There are funny Shakespeares, romantic Shakespeares, mystic Shakespeares, and completely imaginary Shakespeares. And here we have a political Shakespeare and a work-for-hire Shakespeare inhabiting a sprawling play that has more inside references than a semester of Bardic studies and more levels than a Gygaxian dungeon.

Here's the short form, such as it is: Shag (one of the alternate names for the Bard, played by the dynamic Anthony Heald) is hired by Robert Cecil (played with dark relish by Jonathan Haugen), Lord Salisbury, spymaster for King James, to write on the behalf of the crown a new play - "The True History of The Gunpowder Plot". Guy Fawkes has been found beneath Parliament with 36 kegs of gunpowder, a watch, and matches. The conspiracy uncovered invokes nobles of high station and Catholic faith, and eventually Jesuit priests as well, all tied up in a tidy bow. The official story is laid out neatly for Shag - he just has to dramatize it.

Shag's compatriots in his bickering company ("we are a cooperative venture") are pleased with the royal commission, but Shag is unsure. The story as presented has no real ending - Parliament fails to blow up. And small details niggle at him - if they dug a tunnel underneath the building, where did the earth go? How did noble men dig a tunnel?* His investigations take him into the cells of the conspirators and the accused priest, Father Henry Garnet, who in addition to knowing the conspirators had written a book on equivocation, in effect of telling the truth when the truth is deadly. Shag goes through numerous drafts, from the government end, from the conspirators side, and tries to present a truth he can believe in, all the while unsure where the truth lies.

But Shag is troubled not only by the King's spymaster and his own conscience. He is still in mourning for his dead son, and distant from his daughter (Christine Albright), his son's twin. His company (more of a cooperative venture) is at each others' throats over parts and the danger of speaking truth to power. And Shag himself is near the end of his career, and wondering if he has lost his ability to charm and entertain.

It is a great swath of trouble and strife, punching through at many levels, where most of the characters (Cecil in particular) are presenting their own stories, shading the truth, or at least equivocating. And it is presented beautifully, moving effortlessly from stage to private quarters to prison cells, sparing little of the grisly nature, grasping politics, and religious intolerance of the age (and of this age as well).

The production company is not local, but rather imported from Ashland, Oregon, where the piece was debuted last year as part of the Shakespeare Festival. And while I rail in these pixels about the value of local talent for a "Repertory" theater, I must enthusiastically endorse this company, of the original players of the piece. They bring depth and character to their parts as befits the people who created them in the first place. While I may recommend local chefs, even I can recognize a meal created with the skills of the classically trained and deeply confident with the material. The spirit of Ashland haunts these proceedings, and that is a good thing.

The players, all save for Shag and his Daughter, play multiple roles as well (similar to the earlier "The Thirty-Nine Steps" - perhaps a theme is shaping up this season). Young actor becomes tortured prisoner becomes King (John Tufts), Co-founder of the company becomes accused priest (Richard Elmore), and solid supporting fool becomes accusing prosecutor (Gregory Linington). Their work is brilliant as they meld from one character to the next (and in a choice bit, Tufts gets to play King both on stage and King in the royal box simultaneously).

The downside is a small one - the play is awash in knowing references to the Bard and his career and his stake in posterity. Plays are quoted, noted, and winked at. The hordes of royals and nobles that Shakespeare has slaughtered with his pen are commented upon. Hamlet, Richard III, Cymbeline, Lear, and the Scottish Play are all invoked. A few lines feel like the comments of a Shakespeare scholar and not necessarily the words of the King's spymaster or the Bard's daughter.

Yet on the whole it is a brilliant piece of work, similar to "Opus" and "The Thirty-Nine Steps" in that it is a limited company, but great and deep and holding up the mirror (as in MacBeth) to show us for who we truly are. Strongly recommended.

More later,

* Yes, I will pick a nit here. There was no dirt because (in defiance of the popular myth), there was apparently no tunnel. (Per Wikipedia) Parliament had an undercroft at the time, an open basement that was used for storage, and relatively easily accessed. Fawkes, a war veteran and not a noble, had hidden the kegs of gunpowder under a pile of coal and firewood, had been chased out the first time the officials, warned of the plot searched the undercroft, and then caught when the soldiers searched it a second time.