Imagine that your nation’s leader has trouble coming out with the truth. Instead, he has people—henchmen, let’s call them—charged with conveying this leader’s chosen, twisted version of the truth.
Now, imagine this leader, drunk with power and convinced he can get away with anything, has displayed lascivious, immoral behavior, leaving his henchmen to deal with the consequences and answer a questioning public.
And imagine this leader has tons of money and thinks he can buy his way out of anything.
Uh, wait … This sounds familiar.
It’s also the plot of Bill Cain’s political excoriation, Equivocation, the excellently timed play currently in production at Reno Little Theater.
Clearly, Cain had many axes to grind when writing this play. First and foremost, the essential plot tackles political figures’ desire to manipulate the media and hedge the truth. It’s 1606, and the lead character, William Shagspeare (played by Michael Peters), is asked by King James’ right-hand man, Sir Robert Cecil (Jon Lutz), to take on an interesting commission: Write a play about a current national crisis, the recent conspiracy to blow up parliament, using only Cecil’s selectively chosen details. Shag, as his theater friends call him, now must decide whether he should stand by his principles and risk saying no to a king (Brantly Compton) who frequently uses torture on people who disobey him, or just go against every artistic, ethical bone in his body and write the damn thing. A third option soon presents itself: equivocation. Maybe he can please both his king and his psyche by using ambiguity.
But while he was taking shots at politicians, Cain must have figured he might as well take shots at the Bard himself. He relentlessly pokes fun at Shakespeare’s propensity for killing off leaders (“You’ve killed more kings than any man alive. Your mind is a graveyard for royalty.”), relying on twins for mistaken identities (“Try twins—that usually works.”), and using predictable plots (“Comedies end in weddings; histories in battles; treason in death.”) And he skewers the playwright’s blatant disregard for his daughter Judith (played by director Chase McKenna), the only surviving one of his twins since the loss of his son.
And for good measure, he also takes shots at religion and theatergoers, too. Cain has a lot to get off his chest, which is why his poison pen loses some of its accuracy. Though the play makes some marvelous points, it’s a bit all over the place, which is why even McKenna’s obvious directorial talents and many fine performances by RLT actors can’t save this one from feeling overly long and frustratingly wordy. With a 225-minute run time, the play suffers from a severe lack of editing.
However, I enjoyed some wonderful performances—particularly by Lutz as the evil Robert Cecil, and Peters as a torn-apart Shagspeare. Kirk Gardner’s portrayals of Richard, Shag’s colleague and voice of reason, as well as the Jesuit priest Father Garnet, who provides enlightenment to Shag about the power of equivocation, were also impressive. And McKenna’s barbs as Judith are frequently able to cut through Cain’s otherwise-muddy dialogue. Strong performances and staging, as well as Cain’s unsettling, insightfully drawn parallels to modern-day politics make it a story that’s long, but worth seeing.