With only three plays remaining, Raleigh's successful Wherefore: Shakespeare in Raleigh series draws to a close this month. Running in tandem with Seed Art Share and Raleigh Little Theatre's coproduction of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theatre in the Park's regional premiere of Equivocation by Bill Cain helps round out the series. Beginning in January, this clever bit of marketing brought together multiple Shakespeare and Shakespeare-inspired plays by multiple companies under one banner. It allowed for cross promotion and, perhaps unintentionally, asked us to consider the Bard's relevance in the age of the iPhone. As you might remember from high school English, "wherefore" means "why" not "where." Intentional phrasing or not, it's a fair question.
The why and how of Shakespeare's genius are rarely considered. His works are so part of the drinking water that we tend to take their origins for granted. Like the Bible, we imagine the works simply appearing out of thin air and forget the men and women behind them. With Equivocation, Cain takes notes from Tom Stoppard's Oscar-winning film, Shakespeare in Love, to write a modern take on how Shakespeare's greatest works might have come to be. And while Shakespeare in Love may have had more heart and wit, Equivocation is asking bigger questions, specifically about the political origins and ramifications of Shakespeare's plays.
It's 1605 and the failed Gunpowder Plot is still on the top of everyone's mind. You may know the Gunpowder Plot from the mysterious British holiday Guy Fawkes Day, their annual celebration of a terrorist plot dressed up as Fourth of July. It was the failed attempt to blow up British Parliament along with the reigning King James I and his family, the ramifications of which would have reshaped British history. Shakespeare, played by Jim O’Brien and inexplicably called "Shagspeare" in the play, is commissioned by the crown to write a "current event play" on the events of the Gunpowder Plot. Something to "unite the nation" he's told. But with all the facts being delivered secondhand from the government, the Bard begins to wonder how his play will ever ring true. "What did you do with the dirt?" he asks when confronted with the preposterous notion that the Gunpowder conspirators dug a tunnel under Parliament. So he goes digging himself, and thus becomes embroiled in one of the oddest conspiracies in British history.
The six-person cast, led by director Jerry Sipp, keeps the play moving at a kinetic pace. They go back and forth from playing historical figures, to characters from Shakespeare, to reenacting the Gunpowder Plot, to the actors discussing the merits of King Lear, etc, etc. Jim O'Brien kept us grounded as the ever-present and ever-pompous "Shagspeare" and provided a great deal of clarity to a script that could have easily gotten lost in the myriad of political details. Kelly McConkey performed admirably as Shakespeare's daughter, performing a few well-spoken soliloquies on the difficulty of being raised by a playwright.
What Jerry Sipp's direction brings in clarity, it loses in tension and mood building. Despite all the digging for the truth and arguing with British officials, we never felt any real sense of danger for our Shakespeare character. This was in part due to a focus on period over mood, as experienced when walking into the space and being met with period-appropriate Baroque music. It does much to tell when and where we are, but it does very little to set an emotional tone. Stephen Larson's set and lighting design is functional, easily bridging multiple settings, but again, does little to bring mood or tell us about the themes of the play.
So, wherefore Shakespeare? In many ways the question of why we still watch Shakespeare's plays is a bit overplayed. People go to Shakespeare for the same reason they read Stephen King – because they enjoy it. The relevance is the harder question. The line of ascension for the crown isn't exactly a pressing concern, nor do we spend much time debating the divine right of kings. Shakespeare's plays are products of their time – sure, but there's still a great deal of universality. With Equivocation we see a country ripe with conspiracy, ever-present propaganda, lack of government transparency, and political power wielded by a select wealthy few. Sounds like a regular day in Washington if you ask me.
Equivocation continues through Sunday, June 21. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.