When the theatre program has an insert with an Equivocation Timeline that goes from 1533 through 1606 England where the play actually takes place and an Equivocation History outlining the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and a short note pertaining to The King’s Men – the acting troupe that William Shakespeare belonged to and wrote for there is probably too much territory being covered in the play herein called “Equivocation” so that explanations are indeed necessary.
And so it is with Bill Cain’s wordy, unfocused, occasionally amusing, mostly boring backstage look into the private life of Shakespeare – herein called Shag played by the most unlikely person to portray the Bard – John Pankow where he is commissioned by James I (a marvelous David Furr) through his lackey with a limp Sir Robert Cecil (a straight and sedate David Pittu) to turn a manuscript written by the King himself into a play (which must include witches) to be performed by his acting troupe – herein consisting of Richard (the always convincing Michael Countryman) who is a staunch supporter of Shakespeare and Armin (Remy Auberjonois whose very hairy chest does wonders for his portrayal of Lady Macbeth) and the aforementioned David Furr as an egocentric actor who will play any available role as long as it is the lead. Charlotte Parry is Judith, the Shag’s daughter, who is quite unnecessary – although I did vastly enjoy her performance as she speaks asides to the audience telling us she detests theatre and soliloquies and that her mother likes to sleep with very young men.
This is no “Shakespeare in Love” – that brilliant movie by Tom Stoppard. This is Shakespeare in trouble. Stoppard’s movie used Romeo and Juliet to weave its private witty tale of Will. Cain uses Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot about the failed attempt to blow up Parliament to weave confusion, trying to slip in some contemporary references (“Torture does not happen. It’s against the law”) and other inside Shakespearean jokes that at the performance I attended at least two people got before the foursome sitting behind me left at intermission. They missed a second hanging in Act II.
The ill-defined direction by Garry Hynes does little to clarify the too many elements and layers inherent in the script. The stark and depressing set by Francis O’Connor with its metal walls and doors doesn’t help much either. He also is responsible for the budget conscious costumes. One would think that they could afford a more regal robe for James I whose ratty ermine collar was one of the funnier aspects of the production.
The four King’s Men are asked to portray a variety of roles and they are all quite good. However, David Furr is a standout. But the play isn’t about his characters although you may leave the theatre thinking they are.
At New York City Center – Stage 1 www.mtc-nyc.org Photo: Joan Marcus