Politicians have long practiced equivocation, not quite lying but not quite honest. Bill Cain’s ambitious “Equivocation” imagines what Shakespeare, that great language manipulator, might have done when asked to re-write history. Theatre in the Park’s equally ambitious production impresses on several levels, but it, like the script, has flaws that test audience engagement.
Cain’s premise has Shakespeare commanded by King James I’s powerful secretary of state, Robert Cecil, to write the “true” story of the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt to blow up the king and Parliament. Shakespeare (here called Shag, from an alternate spelling, Shagspeare) is troubled by implausibilities of “official” details and determines to investigate hints of a government-contrived event. His theater company members try to dissuade him, warning he’ll get them all hanged.
The Shag-as-detective plot would be enough for a rousing play. But Cain adds play-within-a-play segments, scenes of conspirators’ trials and executions, a subplot about Shag’s ill treatment of his daughter, and musings about theater and language.
Cain wants his themes taken seriously but contradicts that with ribald comedy, contemporary (and often adult) language, and theater in-jokes. Having four of the six-member cast switch rapidly back and forth between characters in a dizzying parade further complicates the script’s density.
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Director Jerry Sipp keeps the energy level high but widens the comedy-drama divide with slapstick and melodrama. He maximizes Stephen J. Larson’s Globe Theatre setting, but the staging is sometimes awkward and rushed.
Jim O’Brien gives Shag a likable demeanor but doesn’t break out of the role’s rather passive confines. Kelly McConkey’s Judith, Shag’s feisty daughter, merely tosses out one-liners at first, but develops a moving character by play’s end. Mark Phialas supplies conspirator priest Henry Garnet with noble stature and sharp wit, his trial and prison scenes the show’s best moments.
Daniel Murphy has stage presence and fine diction in multiple roles, although he’s too youthful and one-dimensional in them. Preston Campbell’s characters also have presence and commitment, but he’s often too boisterous, along with unclear enunciation. Jason Hassell’s Cecil exudes evil incarnate but goes well over the top, his character voice obscuring important lines.
Those acquainted with Shakespeare’s works and the period’s history will likely get the most pleasure from “Equivocation.” General theatergoers may find it overwhelming and uneven.
What: “Equivocation” by Bill Cain
Where: Theatre in the Park, 107 Pullen Road, Raleigh
When: 7:30 p.m. June 11-13 and 19-20; 3 p.m. June 14 and 21
Tickets: $22 (seniors, students, military $16)
Info: 919-831-6058 or theatreinthepark.com