by Bill Cain
Directed by Gerry Hynes
Manhattan Theatre Club

Reviewed by David Spencer

I very much liked Equivocation by Bill Cain, currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club, but I wanted to love it. The premise is terrific: Shakespeare (here called Shag and played by an intensely driven John Pankow) is ordered by King James to write a cautionary political play about what history would call “the gunpowder conspiracy,” a recent attempt on his life—that failed. Which translates to Shag, in dramatic terms, as a story with no ending. But the heat of power is brought to bear and he finds himself stuck in the age-old dilemma between free artistic expression and art controlled by governmental regulation.

                  This is a very witty play with a lot of intentional present-day parallels, and a good deal of double-casting theatricality (David Pittu portrays both the King’s nefarious right-hand man and an actor in Shag’s company; Michael Countryman plays both a Priest held political prisoner and Richard Burbage; and all portrayals by all actors—who also include Remy Auberjonois, David Furr and Charlotte Parry—are crisply excellent under the direction of Gerry Hynes). But somehow its cleverness and provocative ideas don’t coalesce into the kind of thrilling period allegory I think it may aspire to be. And possibly that’s because while we know what Shag doesn’t want to do—compromise his artistry—neither we nor he really knows what he intends to do about it until, late in the game, he makes what will be a surprising decision (to those who have not read spoilers elsewhere); so he spends much of the play examining his options. The examination is vigorously played and expressed, but it’s still a dramatization of stasis and indecision…(even the title defines a condition of being neither here nor there, though the word eventually has compelling meaning within the play)…and the lack of a hero actively driving the story may well be what keeps Equivocation from being, an experience that's well…less equivocal.    

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