For more than 400 years, every Bonfire Night Britons have recited the following verses in remembrance of the foiled plot to assassinate their king and fundamentally change the course of their history.
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot!
A group of disaffected Catholics, led by Guy Fawkes, believed the only way to protect Catholicism from the Protestant majority in Britain was to use 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up parliament and King James I with it. Their conspiracy was discovered and snuffed out, and virtually every conspirator was captured, tortured and killed.
That historical episode serves as the backdrop for Equivocation in which playwright Bill Cain imagines none other than William Shakespeare himself — here dubbed “Shagspeare” — being commissioned to write the definitive recitation of the events of the Gunpowder Plot. As mandated by Sir Robert Cecil (Rodney Lizcano), the play must glorify the British government and vilify the vile villains of the plot. But as Shag (Michael Morgan) researches the treasonous episode, he begins to question the official account.
Is it possible, Shag wonders, that the government itself concocted the plot for its own benefit, like some 17th Century false flag operation? Were Fawkes and his crew merely fall guys who never had a chance of succeeding? Should Shag get “The Gunpowder Treason was an inside job!” t-shirts and bumper stickers printed up?
Shag’s inquiries don’t merely put him and his daughter, Judith (Elise Collins), at risk of reprisal from the dastardly Cecil. The other members of the Globe Theatre Cooperative, Richard (John Hutton), Armin (Drew Horwitz), Sharpe (Hunter Ringsmith) and Nate (Rodney Lizcano, again), could also find themselves under the government’s heal if Shag fails to produce a sufficiently sycophantic piece of theatre for Cecil, King James and the court.
Equivocation takes its name from Jesuit priest Henry Garnet’s writings on the topic about how oppressed Catholics could respond to dangerous, official Protestant inquiries in a way that would protect their interests without crossing the line into lying, a sin that could send them to hell. The exchanges between Garnet (John Hutton, again) and Shag on this subject are some of the liveliest and most thought-provoking in the play.
Credit to director Wendy Franz for getting above average performances from her entire cast. Whether he’s playing the elder theatre statesman, Richard, or the imprisoned priest Garnet, the Denver Center Theatre Company veteran Hutton glides through his performance with utter assuredness. Eschewing broad comedy and self-important bombast, Morgan plays Shag as a thoroughly relatable, conflicted and flawed man. Lizcano commands the stage every time he appears as Cecil, a character he makes the audience love to hate. Partly in his mien and delivery, partly in the Machiavellian, Frank Underwood flavor he brings to the role, Lizcano reminded me of a young Kevin Spacey more than once. Which makes it that much more a surprising pleasure when, often within the same scene, he transforms into the kind, smiling Globe company member, Nate.
Cain has done an excellent job with many aspects of Equivocation. Using the play-within-the-play device, he effectively asks probing questions about the line between entertainment and propaganda. He weaves historical facts, like the death of Shakespeare’s son, seamlessly into his fictitious narrative. He blends drama with comedy in a decidedly satisfying way, and he even skirts philosophical profundity as it relates to the implications of equivocation. He does all this while still giving the audience a mostly rousing rollercoaster ride abounding with Shakespeare in-jokes.
It is a shame, then, that it is precisely there that Equivocation stalls at good on its way to great. Instead of holding its course, remaining focused on the resolution of Shag’s dilemma regarding the Gunpowder Plot play and going deeper into the theme of equivocation — possibly as it relates not just to politics but to theatre and day-to-day family life — Equivocation instead devolves into a Shakespeare-lover’s geek fest. It’s as if Cain elected fan service instead of story service.
Perhaps this was very much on purpose? After all, as more and more Shakespeare festivals choose to include non-Shakespeare productions with the Bard’s actual work, play’s that run tangent to Shakespeare’s world, play’s like Equivocation, will be in higher and higher demand.
On the Bill: Equivocation. Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, University of Colorado, 303-492-8008. Through Aug. 6. Full CSF schedule at coloradoshakes.org.