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Image courtesy of Kanata Theatre

Image courtesy of Kanata Theatre

Equivocation by Bill Cain
Kanata Theatre
Directed by Alain Chamsi

Kanata Theatre’s production of Equivocation contains so many fine moments that you’re left saddened by the fact that it ultimately doesn’t work.

Director Alain Chamsi and his colleagues have worked with diligence and discernment to bring shape and substance to a play that uses an imagined crisis in Shakespeare’s life as a platform for an examination of the fragility of truth in a hothouse political climate.

But ultimately the centre does not hold. Playwright Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest whose moonlighting activities including scripting an episode of House of Cards, has solid credentials, and this 2009 play has been acclaimed in many quarters. But it’s overly ambitious in scope, thematically cluttered, structurally uncertain and at times painfully glib and facile.

Furthermore, when it comes to tone, it attempts to have it both ways — expecting the audience to go along with moments of serious drama, which include a pair of gruesome public hangings, while also expecting them to revel in episodes of comic buffoonery as well as bits of more subtle satire. It’s an uneasy fusion.

There’s a moment late in the evening when a male cast member shows up as Lady Macbeth — and yes, we know that in these times men and boys would be playing female roles. But here, the script clearly requires the sequence to be played for laughs as the watching King James l (whose sexuality has historically been questioned) is entranced by what essentially comes across as a drag turn. It’s questionable whether director Alain Chamsi could have done these moments any differently — but they cheapen the more serious purpose of this play.

Furthermore, if an audience is to appreciate that purpose, it needs to have context for what is happening. Bits of Shakespearean text crop along with references to some of the Bard’s playwriting contemporaries — and they suggest a script obsessed with demonstrating its knowledge and erudition. Then, there’s the assumption that we will be informed enough to appreciate the clever wordplay and dramatic mischief — that when the storm scene from King Lear makes a bewildering intrusion into the first act, we will soon recognize it for what it is, and then enjoy the revelation that we are actually watching squabbling actors from Shakespeare’s company in rehearsal for this darkest of tragedies. So yes, we are being told about the difference between performance and reality here, but we’re also being subjected to a script overly anxious to show off.

More significantly, the play seems to labour under the misapprehension that everybody knows about the notorious 1605  GunPowder Plot, which saw a group of Roman Catholic dissidents conspire to blow up Parliament and the King. Instead, many audience members may be losing their moorings early on with that crucial opening scene when Shakespeare (known as “Shagspeare” in this play) has an ominous confrontation with Robert Cecil, the king’s secretary of state.

Cecil wants Shakespeare to convert a scenario prepared by the King about the Gunpowder Plot into a viable stage piece and will not brook the playwright’s protestation that he doesn’t write about current events.

Cain’s script assumes that we know what Cecil is talking about — a dubious assumption — but the scene still survives at Kanata because of the icy menace of Gordon Walls’s portrayal of Cecil and  Bruce Rayfuse’s display of shambling vulnerability and buffeted integrity as the embattled Shakespeare. There is also an element of cutting satire here as it becomes palpably clear that we’re witnessing a Jacobean example of spin: by writing a play conforming to the government’s version of the Gunpowder plot, Shakespeare  will essentially be delivering a propaganda piece — and he can’t stomach the thought of delivering a script that — well — equivocates.

Playwright Cain’s inspiration for Equivocation apparently sprang from his own scandalized reaction to the “weapons of mass destruction” myth that the Bush White House peddled as justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  The play in its own way becomes a metaphorical hall of mirrors giving us both life and an imitation of life —  with the central venue for its game of make-believe being the legendary Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s actors strut and fret their hour upon the stage.

Designer Karl Wagner has given the production an outstanding set, appropriately grey and  musty with its scaffolding and barrels and props, and even equipped with a centre balcony reminiscent of Stratford’s Festival Theatre. Maxine Bell’s period costuming serves the play well, as does Wagner’s lighting design. Director Alain Chamsi uses these resources imaginatively and with notable fluidity through the play’s various scene changes, and he does his best with those challenging moments when you’re uncertain whether what you’re seeing within the world of this play is real or make-believe.

Its very title signals that Equivocation purports to be a play of ideas. This comes through most powerfully in the scenes involving the imprisoned priest, Henry Garnet, portrayed with quiet intensity by Ian Stauffer. His cunning use of prevarication and ambiguity in a futile effort to save his skin calls up images of Sir Thomas More’s trial in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. But then comes a moment when it’s suggested that we’re actually seeing the Globe company’s principal actor, Richard Burbage, simply rehearsing a scene.

Later, however, comes the farcical moment when Shakespeare saves his skin by passing off his hitherto abandoned gorefest, Macbeth, as some sort of reworking of the Gunpowder Plot story. For decades, academics have been debating the alleged linkage between the Scottish play and Guy Fawkes and his terrorist brigade, and Bill Cain takes often witty advantage of it.

But the problem remains of a play with no clean line. There’s a bundle of ideas shoving against each other for our attention. There’s material for a Jacobean thriller as Shakespeare seeks to discover the truth about the plot to kill the king. There’s a potentially interesting family drama involving the difficult relationship between Shakespeare and his daughter Judith, convincingly portrayed by Amy Osborne. There’s a play about the back-stage rivalries within the Globe Company. And there’s potential for a serious examination of power politics and the abuse of truth.

Too often, this adds up to a confusion of ideas and themes, further undermined by a dangerous disregard for some degree of tonal consistency. At the same time, an impressive degree of care and attention has gone into the mounting of this play at Kanata. Most cast members play more than one role, and these particular performers — Gordon Walls, James Renaud, Solly Balbaa and Ian Stauffer — deserve high marks for their contributions. It’s a pity that the material isn’t more worthy of their efforts.

Equivocation continues at the Ron Maslin Playhouse to Nov. 19

Director: Alain Chamsi

Set and lighting: Karl Wagner

Sound: Mike Bosnich

Costumes: Maxine Ball

Cast:

Shagspeare……………………Bruce Rayfuse

Nate et al……………………..Gordon Walls

Sharpe et al……………………James Renaud

Armin et al…………………….Solly Balbaa

Richard et al…………………..Ian Stauffer

Judith………………………….Amy Osborne