Bill Cain’s 2009 play Equivocation is an inspired but exhausting mash-up of Shakespeare and 17th-century British history. Its premise, that The Bard himself has been commissioned to write a propaganda play based on King James I’s account of the Gunpowder Plot, raises possibilities for substantive political and historical discourse. But Equivocation, being given its regional premiere at Lamb’s Players Theatre under the direction of Deborah Gilmour Smyth, staggers under the heft of Cain’s lengthy script, jammed as it is with subtext and examinations of truths, parsing of language and a relentlessness to be both clever and deep.
That being said, Equivocation’s comedy and its parodic nods to the body politic of the future play out well. Have the question of compromise or the blurring of truth ever been more relevant than in these inscrutable times we live in? With these sometimes-surprising allusions come occasions for audience laughter, though on opening night in Coronado more than a few in attendance didn’t seem to be “getting it,” as they say. The narrative’s dissection of conscience and betrayal, on the other hand, turns positively academic, deadening what jesting or stage antics preceded it. Equivocation perhaps tries to be two plays in one – always a chancy proposition.
As for the ensemble, Robert Smyth (as “Shagspear”) has all the gravity and mindful elocution to transcend the play’s structural shortcomings. Even when his character’s motivations feel mercurial, Smyth evinces the surefootedness of a desirable literary hero. He is supported in the Lamb’s production by a stalwart cast that includes an equally charismatic Paul Eggington in multiple roles, chiefly that of a martyred cleric-rebel and an ornery member of Shag’s troupe. Francis Gercke admirably handles the role of the pitiable, hunchbacked Robert Cecil, heartlessly called “beagle” by the king. And as Shag’s daughter, Judith, Catie Grady makes the most of a part that should’ve been larger.
Figuring Equivocation’s twists and turns may give you a mild headache, but for relief there’s a soothing cello played intermittently on stage by Diana Elledge.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.