All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Equivocation — Arden Theatre

equivocation == interiorBesides being thoughtful and thought-provoking, Bill Cain is a clever playwright who can take a lot of plot strands and weave them into an engrossing, satisfying quilt of entertainment.

Cain’s “Equivocation” is a sprawling piece that touches on a wide range of subjects, from putting on a play to doubts about the accuracy of history as we know it, and gains extra luster from featuring the greatest dramatist of all time, William Shakespeare, as its pivotal character, the who links numerous plot tangents.

Cain humanizes Shakespeare. He even refers to him as “Shag” or “Shagspeare” in accordance with some 16th century documents that bear Shakespeare’s signature spelled that way. Cain covers miles of ground, but “Equivocation” centers most on multi-source manipulation of Machiavellian proportion. In practiced hands, manipulation takes the form or wielding power and alternating subtle persuasion with direct orders that are disobeyed at one’s inevitable peril. To those with a philosophical bent, manipulation involves molding cunning declarations and responses that address implied meanings rather than answering direct questions with direct, truthful answers. For example, someone asking if another is at home doesn’t have to be answered honestly if it is discerned the asker really means, “Is so and so available for the harm I want to iinflict?” rather than, “Is so and so available for a friendly visit?”

At Richard Burbage’s theater, where Shagspeare toils among fellow artists, manipulation means sulking, praising, complaining, withholding, or threatening betrayal to get better parts, better lines, better pay, and better job security. Everyone in “Equivocation” wants something and/or has something to hide or evade. The fun in Cain’s generously complex play is watching gifted manipulators at work and seeing where their machinations will lead. The gratification from it is in being mentally engaged while some history, savoring some intrigue, and getting a look at personal and collaborative creativity in action. Cain’s piece is a comedy with mortally serious passages and at least one character whose humor is like a knife dripping with sarcasm and daunting innuendo. It leads in many directions, the ultimate one being a surprise that will resonate for 400 years and counting.

“Equivocation” requires a crackerjack cast, and Terrence J. Nolen, at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre has assembled an troupe that’s unanimously up to the challenge. Dan Hodge, as King James I’s primary counselor, Robert Cecil, is drolly malevolent as the de facto leader of England who can make bodies cringe and heads roll at the nod of his always calculating head. Ian Merrill Peakes matches him as a sharp-witted priest whose treatises teach the way to be generally honest while thwarting traps set by those who would use your candor or sincerity against you. Eric Hissom is an ironic sad sack of a Shagspeare, fully aware of a personal predicament as regards Cecil’s determinant power over life and death, or even livelihood or penury, yet using his own expertise, especially of human nature and dramatic logic, to challenge the flinty chancellor.

Hissom’s Shag is also open to being instructed or enlightened by Peakes’s Father Henry Garnet. Cain and Nolen’s merged skills clearly illuminate the myriad ideas, theories, jokes, intrigues, and plot twists afoot and make the Arden’s “Equivocation” a theatrical, entertaining, and intellectual feat worth relishing for its impressive literary dexterity and fulfilling storytelling.

Now’s the time to wish everyone, British or not, a Happy Guy Fawkes Day (November 5). “Equivocation” most basically revolves around the famous 1605 Gunpowder Plot in which Fawkes, a devotee of explosives, and others conspired to blow up London’s Houses of Parliament while James I, his family, his ministers, and all the lords and MPs were in it to mark the king’s opening of a new legislative session.

Fawkes and his cohorts were foiled in their attempt before Fawkes could detonate 36 tons of dynamite waiting in tunnels underneath the Thames landmark. In “Equivocation,” Cecil takes credit for preventing Fawkes’s scheme, capturing all the miscreants who participated in it, and bringing them to justice, often gruesome justice involving being taken half dead from gallows and being drawn and quartered while conscious until death came, at which time the corpse of the plotter would be left for bird food while his head was severed and placed on a pike as a deterrent to others who might strategize against Cecil and the king.

Fawkes is not a character in “Equivocation.” Cain introduces two more interesting, and contrasting, figures to represent the Gunpowder conspirators, the charismatic and wily articulate prelate, Garnet, who has been conducting forbidden Catholic services in secret chapels during Elizabeth I and James’s Protestant reigns, and the hapless but earnest youth, Thomas Wintour, who, as played by Sean Lally, touchingly tells Shagspeare his motives for joining the murderous cause. These men give their high-minded and deeply emotional sentiments for proceeding with the Gunpowder Plot. Their individual purposes give texture to Cain’s story by making a dangerous situation in which Cecil places Shagspeare more harrowing.

That situation is commission that cannot be refused without inviting dire reprisal.

Cecil hands Shagspeare a manuscript, allegedly written by the king, that chronicles the story of the Gunpowder Plot. His job is to dramatize it. In one week. When Shag balks at the deadline, Cecil reluctantly relents and give him two weeks. The commission comes with a princely honorarium, which neither Shag nor Burbage, working men with children to keep and mortgages to pay, have the heart to forfeit. So Shagspeare is stuck. He has to come up with a play of his usual quality that will please James and Cecil and satisfy the groundlings.

Back among Burbage’s troupe, Shagspeare enumerates all of the problems in composing and performing the piece Cecil explicitly wants. He complains of the folly of putting current events on stage. He inveighs against the life-saving necessity of having James and Cecil be always heroic while Garnet, Wintour, and Fawkes are arrant villains with no redeemable trait. He whines most about the Gunpowder Plot being intrinsically undramatic and unworthy of a play because everyone knows the outcome, and the plot was stymied.

Cain is being coy with that last cavil. He, by writing “Equivocation” and doing it so well, proves categorically that the Gunpowder Plot is interesting enough to be the subject of a play. Scenes with Peakes’s Garnet and Lally’s Wintour makes it quite fascinating. Besides, Shakespeare would be well aware that his audience would know the results at Agincourt and the Salisbury Plain, so it would be disingenuous of him to have scruples over the Cecil, Fawkes, and the Gunpowder Plot. The scenes Cain sneaks in of Shagspeare’s play in progress, scenes that don’t announce themselves as a part of a rehearsal and look as if they are happening on the spot, a device served by all the characters doubling as Burbage’s actors, actually work pretty well and have a lot of engaging drama in them. Cain cleverly uses Shagspeare’s alleged inability to stage The Gunpowder Plot as an excuse to introduce another plot thread that ties in directly with the Bard’s composing another, much more famous play about a Scottish king, in its place.

“King Lear” and “Macbeth” both pour from Shagspeare’s mind as he parries with and quails from Cecil in “Equivocation.” Cain is masterful at inculcating Shakespearean passages into his work. You get to see Nolen’s superb cast in several different guises — as members of Burbage troupe, and the nobles and conspirators, and as presenters of Shakespeare — and the effect is exhilarating.

Although Cain invents how “Lear” and “Macbeth” were formed, he gives insight into the Elizabethan process of playmaking and playwriting that adds to the overall lure of “Equivocation.”

Political intrigue, and the manipulation it involves, form the main crux of Cain’s play. Alternating scenes between Cecil and Garnet, or Cecil and Wintour, present both sides of the argument that inspired the Gunpowder plotters to action. Again, they show how enthralling a play about the conspirators and James’s government would be.

Ideas are rampant. One Cain plants in your mind is an implication that the Gunpowder Plot was exaggerated or embellished, if not elaborated fabricated, by Cecil to secure sympathy and loyalty to James by showing the king is in danger and the target of miscreants who will disrupt public will and public order to advance their case.

Naturally, Cain brings this part of his plot to no conclusion, but the prospect of Cecil being so devious adds a highly provocative note Cain might mean to extend to other eras and other times that politicians have overstated what might be true to win public opinion and give them leeway to proceed in manner the public might otherwise eschew.

So many scenes register boldly in Nolen’s production. The scene between Hissom’s Shagspeare and Lally’s Wintour is quite tender and touching even as you’re inclined to take Cecil and the king’s part in the Gunpowder affair and be glad it failed. Ian Merrill Peakes is so laudably respectable and so well-spoken at Garnet, one could be attracted to the beliefs of the priest whose aim was to preserve Catholicism in England despite laws that command all to join the Church of England (Anglican or Episcopalian). The Gunpowder Plot was hatched because James, a Catholic while King of Scotland, adhered to the bargain that made him heirless Elizabeth’s successor and ruled as a Protestant instead of asserting his original religion and never lightened the penalties one faced by people who openly practiced Catholicism. He, via Cecil, was, if anything, more of a scourge towards people who retained their Catholic faith in lieu of accepting the state religion decreed by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, and upheld by all subsequent British monarchs except Mary I, Henry’s older daughter and Elizabeth’s sister.

NealBoxYou don’t hear rage from Lally’s Wintour, only a sense of betrayal and persecution that was to be remedied by violence. You feel for Wintour though he is a killer and are glad Shagspeare is willing to do the hapless man’s last bidding, to convey a letter expressing his love to his wife. Although Wintour is guilty and justifiably held and sentenced, the political overtones resonate as Cain suggests Cecil’s allowing the Gunpowder Plot to proceed until the last minute and his possible padding of the details to enhance and ennoble the government stance as both the designated victim of the plot and the prosecutor of those carried it out. Cain is not sentimental is his depiction of Wintour. As with much in “Equivocation,” he puts a human face on an historical situation.

The more interesting face is that of Peakes’s Father Henry Garnet, a man whose guilt is real but more by association than commission.

In the context of “Equivocation,” or at least Nolen’s presentation of it, Garnet, though a complicit criminal from the law’s point of view, is the untainted good guy encouraging, if not participating, in a stand for religious freedom and justice that can only take place, paradoxically, in the defiance of stated law.

Cain makes Garnet articulate and moving. The prelate’s gift for words make him more than an match for Sir Edward Coke, the royal prosecutor, played by Anthony Lawton, who is there to try him for treason, murder, and other capital crimes.

Garnet frequently interrupts Coke or anticipates his line of questioning by making statements that thwart the prosecutor from making a case, or at least one that is as airtight as reality says it should be. Garnet’s ability to parry, counter, and make logical arguments in the wake of Coke’s accusation, make him both formidable as a suspect attempting to save his own life and one of the more entertaining and provocative characters in Cain’s play.

If Garnet, who would let the Gunpowder Plot occur in all of its destruction and carnage, is the good guy, it renders Cecil, already the villain and foil to ridicule in Cain’s piece, even more wormily Machiavellian, pragmatic, and duplicitous. Shagspeare, working on his play while Garnet is making a mockery of Coke and Cecil in court and languishing at all other hours in a Tower of London cell, is drawn to Garnet and somewhat sympathetic towards him. His crime aside, Garnet, via Peakes, has stature, sincerity, and cleverness among his many fine traits. Answering a question from Coke, Garnet reveals he wrote a pamphlet about the art of equivocation, the art of presenting information in a way that doesn’t commit one to any stance but the theoretical and can prevent one from incriminating himself. Shagspeare is fascinated by Garnet’s cunning with rhetoric and the strategic use of it. He is taken with the Jesuit’s intellect and understanding of intent that goes beyond literal statement or declaration.

Cain has turned tables. Garnet is laudable. Cecil remains a retributive, power-mad fiend. Even though, in the context of the Gunpowder Plot, Garnet is totally in the wrong, and Cecil, even if he skewed or exaggerated some facts, is appropriately appalled by the thoughtless near-massacre of hundreds, and in the right.

Cain or Garnet, if they wanted to challenge my logic, might plead persecution and a tinge of righteousness in a revolutionary act against tyranny, but I’d say the proportion of the intended act supersedes any noble face anyone would place on it, that the possibly just cause was employing foul means to achieve its ends and therefore should yield Garnet, wise, articulate, and sympathetic as he is, to the worst of Cecil’s punishments.

As an audience, we like seeing the rebel give the establishment its comeuppance. Peakes, Lawton, Hodge, and Hissom all play their parts perfectly to bring out the drama and humanity Cain has crafted.

Cain has deeper designs than deft entertainment. He is demonstrating all a playwright, like Shagspeare, would have to consider in putting a story on stage. The charm of Garnet’s character needs to be seen. Regard we have for Garnet sets up the revulsion we feel at witnessing his and Wintour’s gruesome executions. Even though we know Cecil is right to order and proceed with them.

equivocation -- interior 2Shagspeare would have the obligation Cain fulfilled of showing all sides of a situation while eventually showing why one of the sides should have its way. Once again, Cain negates Shagspeare’s premise that the Gunpowder Plot isn’t fit for the stage, because Peakes’s Garnet may be the most engrossing and instructive figure we see.

Hodge’s Cecil, by contrast, is all pomp and malevolence. Dressed in black robes and sporting a pronounced limp that affects his gait. Hodge’s Cecil’s general expression is a sneer. He knows that even in the rare instance when he is not the smartest person in the room, he is the most powerful and the most dangerous.

Cain has Cecil says several times he is the king’s surrogate and speaks for the king in all things. You can see in Hodge’s eyes the challenge to others to doubt his authority or test it. This is a no-nonsense administrator who takes no time for niceties, rarely even sleeping unless he can do so, comically and unseen, in the king’s robes and crown.

For all of personified malice Hodge conveys, he gives Cecil vestiges of wit and wiliness. Cecil, thinking he is being humorous or attempting to lighten with threats with a calm, steady voice and a bon mot or two, is more treacherous in friendly mode than he is as a dictator who will back up his orders by routinely chopping off one’s head.

Peakes gives charisma and variety to Garnet. Hodge endows Cecil with no less. Hodge shows the joy Cecil takes in being irritating. He shows how he uses candor as a great weapon. He also shows how he steams when being humbled, as seen in scenes when Shagspeare catches his in James’s robe, encounters him in the presence of James, or mounts the play he thinks James will like better than a Gunpowder Plot opus, much to Cecil’s chagrin and humiliation.

Scenes with Cecil and James are funny and telling. Sean Lally is a loose-limbed, loose-lipped James who doesn’t mind being a tad crude or taking every opportunity to disparage his greater-than-thou minister. Using a thick comic Scottish brogue, and flipping off lines more like a lively guy in a bar than like a king, Lally has and provides great fun as the one person who can put Cecil in his place and appall him while doing so. The byplay between Cecil and James are especially funny in Nolen’s production because Lally is so broad in his performance and Hodge is so cannily sheepish while conveying facially he will get his revenge at some point, on Shagspeare for witnessing his ridicule as much as on the king, who, through all of his banter and calling Cecil “Beagle,” knows who will keep the British crown on his bonny head.

Cain’s wonderfully complex play, and Nolen’s smart, multi-levelled production give audiences an intellectual and theatrical treat.

Both the playwright and the director are men of the theater, and they have a good time showing the behind-the-scenes politics that go into keeping an early 17th century company together and putting on plays. Peakes, so good as Garnet, is equally impressive as an overburdened Richard Burbage. Hodge, so brilliant as Cecil, is just as mesmerizing as the actor playing Cecil in a rehearsal of Shagspeare’s draft for the Gunpowder play.

Hodge, Peakes, Hissom, and Lally are all at the top of their games no matter which of several characters assigned to them they are playing.

Hissom only has one role, Shagspeare, the man who has to be as much investigator and journalist as he is a playwright if he is to understand all of the ramifications of the Gunpowder Plot. He gives that role great range, portraying Shagspeare as a man exasperated and exhausted by having to serve so many people at one time. He must fulfill his order from Cecil and do it cagily. He is answerable to his partners in Burbage’s troupe and subject to their demands and criticisms. He has the artist’s attitude towards Garnet and Wintour but must be practical about what he ultimately places on stage for King James to see.

Hissom is witty in conveying Shagspeare’s harried state. You see the way the writer clutches at straws while worrying when he might pull the last straw with the maniacal Cecil.

Sean Lally gives spirit to the most rebellious and potentially treacherous member of Burbage’s troupe. He is hilariously free-wheeling at James I, and he is moving as Thomas Wintour. Cain gives James a humorous leitmotif, as the king constantly says that whatever else Shagspeare puts in his play, he wants to see witches. Lally makes this repeated request hilarious, using his Scottish accent and enthusiasm to express his desire as a boy wanting a puppy might.

Anthony Lawton’s flashiest moments are as Sir Edward Coke, but he leavens the production with the playfulness he shows in some of the scenes among the actors and has some fine Shakespearean moments during rehearsals of “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”

Campbell O’Hare, who brought so much texture to her role in “The Whale” and such telling modernity to her character in “Rapture! Blister! Burn!” plays the role of Shagspeare’s daughter, Judith, too straightforwardly. Her lines seem to come only from Cain’s script and not from a careful portrait of Judith.

Scenes with Judith, although they are supposed to reveal Shagspeare’s domestic life and explain some of his choices as a playwright, are the weakest in Nolen’s production. They’re almost like interruptions. You could cut them and do no detriment to Cain’s work. The insight, comedy, and warmth they’re supposed to provide never materializes.

David P. Gordon’s set is sparse enough to be a rehearsal and, thanks to Solomon Weisbard’s lighting intimate enough to be a cloister or a prison cell. The simple addition of chair here or a desk there converts Gordon’s space convincingly to whatever is required. Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s costumes were always on the mark. I especially liked her swathing Hodge’s Cecil in black. Jorge Cousineau’s sound design also serves Nolen’s production well.

“Equivocation” runs through Sunday, December 13, at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 26. Tickets range from $50 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting

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