A playwright named “Shagspeare” in Bill Cain’s “Equivocation”

This summer, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the playwright and poet from Stratford-upon-Avon’s birth, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum (WGTB) presented an all-Shakespeare repertory season at its leafy amphitheater perched in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles. But one work this season is not by, but rather about, the Bard-or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Ted Barton, who’d previously portrayed Shakespeare at WGTB’s July ceremony honoring the dramatist, plays a similarly named wordsmith, “Shagspeare,” in. This two-act drama with some humorous touches imagines a Shakespeare-like author-“Shag” for short-receiving a command assignment: A royal commission to write about Guy Fawkes and England’s 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a piece of agitprop that presents the government’s point of view, to be performed by the theater company Shagspeare belongs to.

The Gunpowder Plot was an actual conspiracy to blow up King James and the Houses of Parliament that took place while Shakespeare was still alive. It’s beyond the scope of this review to go into details about the revolutionary scheme, but many readers will be familiar with Guy Fawkes masks, which depict a smirking face with a mustache upturned at each end and a goatee. These masks were popularized in the 2006 movie Vendetta and more recently have adorned the faces of some protesters, from Occupy Wall Street to Anonymous.

Equivocation is at its thought-provoking best when it ponders the role of theater and politics, plays and propaganda, or, to paraphrase Lenin, “the stage and revolution.” There is swordplay as well as wordplay, including a definition of what equivocation means that this reviewer had never considered before.

The two and a half hour-long work is extremely complex, even convoluted, and I honestly found it difficult to follow. This complexity is compounded by a play within a play, as at one point the troupe of thespians performs a truncated version of Macbeth. Although the cast consists of only six (small by Theatricum standards), it seems that at least some of the actors play multiple roles. If I understood that aspect of the production correctly, the playbill only listed one role per actor, which only adds to the confusion. One can guess that all of the above reflects the fact that Bill Cain is, in fact, a Jesuit priest!

In addition to probing the role of art vis-à-vis politics, nine years after the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot the play’s plot has interesting references to our 21st-century world. There is the torture that has crept onto stage and screen since the Cheney-Bush régime got into the euphemistically named “enhanced interrogation” biz at Guantánamo and “black sites” that dot the globe. Indeed, this is the second WGTB production this summer wherein torture is a plot point.

Even more ominously, like Aeschylus’ Persians, Equivocation also depicts a beheading. Both of these decapitations are occurring onstage just as ISIS maniacs are making videos (with “high production values,” as newscasters/propagandists for some reason rarely fail to point out) of the poor Western journalists and aid workers whose heads these terrorists are busy chopping off.

Furthermore, Equivocation was launched shortly before the referendum on Scottish independence, which, like the Gunpowder Plot, had the potential to greatly alter what is called the United Kingdom.

Barton is fine as the pantalooned Shag, as is Taylor Jackson Ross as his daughter Judith, who is the ensemble’s only female member (unless you include a brief drag sequence-after all, in Shakespeare’s day, all of the roles were depicted at the Globe by males). The interplay between father and daughter has something of a Shakespearean quality, a bit in the mode of Lear. Alan Blumenfeld is able as the ailing Nate and full of the romping pomposity this seasoned actor emanates in his more comic roles. As Sharpe, Dane Oliver steals many of his scenes as a preternaturally hammy, preening “ac-teur!” Mike Peebler deftly directs this complicated stew that, fan as I am of the Theatricum, I only wish I could more unequivocally recommend to avid amphitheatergoers.

Equivocation is being performed in repertory through Oct. 4 along with Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lear plus Much Ado About Nothing, at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310) 455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.

Photo: Dane Oliver, left, and Alan Blumenfeld in Bill Cain’s “Equivocation” at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. (Ian Flanders) 



Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.