Oregon Shakespeare Festival launched the world premiere of American playwright Bill Cain's "Equivocation" at the Bowmer Theatre last Saturday. A gripping historical play, laced with laughs early on, and finely directed by Bill Rauch, it grapples with the aftermath of the foiled Gunpowder Plot in England on Nov. 5, 1605. Then a band of dissident Catholics had intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament, along with James I, on opening day.
Caught up in the aftermath is Will Shakespeare (spelled Shagspeare or Shag in the play), who is given the commission by Sir Robert Cecil, King James' chief advisor, a man who flaunts his power and has a widespread spy network, to "dialogue" the King's play purported to be the "official" account of the Plot. He has two weeks to complete it and at the King's behest must include witches.
Shag realizes that the proposition is not feasible; he does not do propaganda or sermons but, rather, history of the past. Anyway, what is truth? Pilate asked that question of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago. The worthy Bishop William Stubbs declared, "History is a pack of lies." A harsh condemnation, perhaps.
In the play, Bill Cain explores the views of Father Henry Garnet, one of the conspirators, who wrote "A Treatise of Equivocation" to help priests to avoid the sin of lying while being interrogated.
Another concern of Shag is his theater company, known as the King's Men, established under royal patronage in 1603, a cooperative venture comprising four actors — Richard (Richard Elmore), Nate (Jonathan Haugen), Sharpe (John Tufts) and Armin (Gregory Linington). They perform some 20 characters with flair and polish, becoming conspirators, executioners, priests, gaolers, court officials and characters in two unnamed plays (now known as "King Lear" and "Macbeth"). Sometimes their egos clash and there are tantrums and tough talk, while Shag worries about the money they will lose by turning down the assignment. Keeping a watchful eye on him is his daughter Judith, portrayed with refreshing candor by Christine Albright.
Associate Artistic Director and Scenic Designer Christopher Acebo has created an impressive space reminiscent of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre that adapts to the court, prison and rehearsal stage. Remarkably, few props are needed, whereas many costume changes challenge the skill of Deborah M. Dryden, resident costume designer (King James is given a royal treat).
There are interludes with several of the conspirators, notably Tom Wintour (John Tufts), who is tortured, and Father Henry Garnet (Richard Elmore). The playwright cleverly resolves the issue of Shag's version of the Gunpowder Plot by presenting "Macbeth" to His Majesty, a play about the King of Scotland, replete with witches. The King loves it, raves over it. Not so, Sir Robert Cecil, who had "waves of hate rolling off him throughout, and who sourly admits, "If it pleased your Majesty, I am content."
And here is the kicker: The King thinks there is more pleasure in store for him. He asks the Lassie to come along, little realizing that she is a Laddie playing Lady Macbeth. Bill Cain includes the porter's comment in Act II, Scene II of "Macbeth."
"Knock, knock! Who's there, I' the other evil's name? — Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven-O, come in, Equivocator."
This is a pointed reference to the doctrine of equivocation avowed by Henry Garnet, superior of the order of Jesuits, on his trial for the Gunpowder Plot in 1606.
"Equivocation" contains strong language and brief nudity but is thrilling theater. It plays through Oct. 31.