Write or die
William Shakespeare is best known for the power of his pen. But contemporary playwright Bill Cain plucks Shakespeare from behind his quill pen and plops him center stage as a main character in his award-winning play Equivocation, currently at B Street Theatre.
In this new twist of the old Bard, Shakespeare becomes embroiled in a drama/mystery when the king’s ne’er-do-well prime minister approaches the well-known playwright to scribe a play portraying King James I in a positive light. This is right after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the assassination attempt against the king and monarch which failed when Guy Fawkes was caught guarding explosives placed beneath the House of Lords.
When the king’s right-hand man, Sir Robert Cecil, lays out his public-relations plan to Shag (a nickname Cain uses in the play for Shakespeare), he refers to his offer as a commission, but it becomes quite clear it is a royal command performance: Write or die. But when Shag tries to excuse himself and his theatrical troupe from the offer, saying, “We don’t do politics. We do histories. True histories of the past,” Cecil counters by reminding Shag that he is the king of king plays, and has killed more kings than anyone in history, referring to the many Shakespeare plays that revolve around royalty.
What makes Cain’s play so entertaining as well as thought provoking is the inclusion of so many aspects that capture and keep the audience’s attention—Shakespeare play references, historical facts, intriguing plots, morality issues, artistic conundrums, religion convictions, familial discord, political thriller and veiled references to current events. Why, it’s very Shakespearean, down to a play within a play, and is both a tribute and a gentle mocking of the Bard and his familiar works.
Though it may sound a bit daunting for non-Shakespeare aficionados, both a wicked sense of humor and non-Elizabethan dialogue (with the exception of actual Shakespeare quotes) keep the play moving at a fast clip. As does the six-member cast portraying two dozen roles that range from the royal court down to prison guards, and include plotters, thespians, rebels, royals, Jesuits, witches and even a daughter.
The cast is impressive and combines both B Street regulars as well as a couple newbies—Remi Sandri, who gives us a morally divided and a bit intimidated Shakespeare; and James Leo Ryan as an engaging member of the Bard’s troupe and King James. B Streeters include Matt K. Miller who provides both the resounding voice of ethics by the Jesuit priest and Shakespeare’s best bud Richard; Kurt Johnson as the imposing Prime Minister and another thespian; John Lamb as a prosecutor and another troupe member. And Brittni Barger hovers about as Shakespeare’s daughter and moral compass, as well as the one who discovers a clever plan B which involves toils and troubles.
Director Laura Baker deftly handles the daunting task of keeping a million balls in the air, juggling multiple plot lines, characters, actors, scene changes, all the while carefully teetering between drama and comedy. Though the play at times feels a bit weighed down by so much going on, Baker keeps the cast and audience on focus by delivering a winning production that will amuse and entertain enthusiasts of Shakespeare, history, intrigue and just plain engaging theater.