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Theater Review: “Equivocation” at Arena Stage

Shakespeare gets a reincarnation and a new commission in this Oregon Shakespeare Festival production.

The cast of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2009 production of Equivocation, directed by Bill Rauch. Photograph by Jenny Graham

☆☆☆☆ out of four

It takes guts—and a little hubris—to write a play that includes “new” passages from the pen of William Shakespeare, even if it’s supposed to be bad, never-published Shakespeare. But author Bill Cain clearly isn’t lacking in confidence, and pulling off this trick convincingly is one of the many accomplishments of his riveting Equivocation, currently being performed at Arena Stage.

Technically the central character in Equivocation, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production which Arena is hosting, is William “Shagspeare.” But we’re clearly seeing Cain’s version of the same man: William (Anthony Heald), husband of Ann, former actor, and author of plays like King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. Shagspeare has a sardonic wit, a grieving soul still haunted by the death of his son, and a restless conscience, one that’s put under further strain by a commission he receives from the king’s right-hand man, Robert Cecil (Jonathan Haugen).

Cecil, ostensibly under orders of the king, wants the writer to write a “definitive” version of the Gunpowder Plot, a bit of familiar British history when conspirators led by Guy Fawkes unsuccessfully attempted to blow up Parliament. But in Shakespeare’s (or Shagspeare’s) time, this wasn’t history. It was the present, and Shagspeare initially wants no part in constructing what would be more propaganda than art. But Cecil can be . . . convincing, and Equivocation weaves us through Shagspeare’s and his artistic collective of fellow performers’ attempts at the task.

Cain’s play is infused with wit and poignancy, and rife with Shakespeare references both clever and accessible. Deadpan advice from William’s daughter Judith (a droll, probing Christine Albright), when her father struggles with his writing: “Try twins. That usually works.” The play feels contemporary in a way that isn’t jarring, though Cain throws in a handful of coy nods to present sensibilities. “He balanced the budget,” Cecil says reverently about a misunderstood Richard III. Cain also flirts with the fourth wall using self-aware soliloquies from Judith, in which she often complains about her father’s own use of the device.

Equivocation provocatively tackles themes of truth and religion. Cain, as the title indicates, takes a probing look at the concept of equivocation, which priests used to protect themselves during times of persecution, and explores it in a fascinating way, weaving it together with themes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Director Bill Rauch’s casting is flawless. In particular, the face-offs between enemies Haugen and Heald are so charged, so exciting, that they have a tension that borders on sexual. Haugen’s portrayal of Cecil, the picture of self-possessed deviousness one minute and unhinged madness the next, is delightfully unbalanced and unpredictable. Rauch makes smart use of double casting, with the actors switching abruptly from their roles as Shakespearean performers into the characters said actors are embodying in Shagspeare’s play-within-a-play. It’s a cheeky trick that feels appropriate for this clever and contemplative work.

Equivocation runs through January 1 at Arena Stage. Tickets ($40 to $85) are available through Arena’s Web site.