Shakespeare Agonistes in Ashland Première

macbethpremiere

After nearly half a century of bringing Shakespeare’s works to West Coast audiences, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) this year presents The Bard in a new way – as a character, rather than an author. The world-première of Bill Cain’s new play, Equivocation, at Ashland this season marks a major, world-class theatrical event right here in our own neighborhood.

The taut, complex and wickedly funny script looks like a sure fire repertory classic. But it’s no cinch to produce.To bring it off requires a deft directorial touch and a sextet of high-energy, ultra-versatile actors – exactly the sort of resources that make Ashland a natural venue for its debut. No wonder the OSF’s new artistic director, Bill Rauch, has earmarked the play as his personal project for his second season at the Festival’s helm.

Equivocation offers us no yeasty, youthful “Shakespeare in Love.” Instead, we’re shown old Shag (as he’s called by his fellow-actors) at the height of his powers and the depths of his mid-life crisis. From his first words onstage (“Why me?”), Ashland veteran Anthony Heald portrays Shag with a haunted what-am-I-doing-here air; very much the tormented nullity described by Argentine enigmatist Jorge Luis Borges:

There was no one in him; … nothing but a little chill, a dream not dreamed by anyone.

Instinctively, he … trained himself in the habit of pretending that he was someone. So … he hit upon the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor … But when the last line was applauded and the last corpse removed from the stage, the hated sense of unreality came over him again … Trapped, he fell to imagining other heroes and other tragic tales … Nobody was ever as many men as that man … Twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination.

Shag is the only one onstage to suffer such nagging emptiness. All the other characters are quite full of themselves and their own agendas. They know that Shag is somehow special, and they all want something from him.

His daughter, Judith (Christine Albright), sulks through her menial chores backstage at the Globe as the theater company’s all-around gofer, a Cinderella with an attitude. She longs for any fleeting sign of recognition from a father who seems lost in mourning for her twin brother, Hamnet, who died in childhood.

Shag’s actor/impresario partners in The King’s Men, a theatrical cooperative, care more about profits and plaudits than artistic integrity or literary legacy. Most of all, they care about staying out of the Tower of London dungeons in an era of strictest self-censorship  where lèse majesté can be a capital offense. Shag is their ticket to success – but also to potential trouble.

The Kings Men are the Mainstream Media of their day, enjoying mass audiences and royal patronage. But staying on the right side of the crown can be tricky in a time of dynastic and sectarian turmoil. His Un-serene Highness, King James I, is new on the job and unpopular. As portrayed here (by John Tufts), he comes off as an infantile Scottish popinjay with a lisping brogue and a kinky obsession with witches.

In order to shore up public support for the shaky new Protestant sovereign, sinister royal spy-master Robert Cecil (Jonathan Haugen) browbeats Shag to write a propagandistic infomercial. The subject is to be the recently thwarted “Gunpowder Plot,” in which a ring of dissident Catholic gentry (including the notorious Guy Fawkes) allegedly conspired to tunnel under the House of Lords and blow up King and Parliament.

The King himself demands this script, Cecil assures Shag. Make sure there’s snappy dialogue. And don’t forget the witches.

This is a no-win proposition for the playwright. It’s one thing to pander to royal whim with a bagatelle like Merry Wives of Windsor or a dynastic whitewash like Henry VIII (which is also onstage this season at Ashland – watch this space for a review). One can even venture veiled commentary on contemporary issues as long as it’s wreathed in mists of long-ago history, as in Richard III or Henry IV. But a full-Monty treatment of current events is a deadly risk.

Cecil revels in Shag’s unease. Fair payback, he feels, for that vicious (although admittedly accurate) lampoon of the spy-master’s pompous sire as Polonius in Hamlet. There may be also a touch of nerd-versus-jock revenge: the dwarfish, gimpy policy wonk gleefully discomfiting the matinee idol. Nor can Cecil the statesman, with his ‘big-picture’ sense of historical context, abide the realization (which he alone can grasp) that his own historic legacy will be far outshone by that of a mere rapscallion scrivener like Shag.

But there’s more than personal pettiness in play. In his blinkered altruism, Cecil aims to spare England a century of religious strife – as long as sectarian peace can be achieved through an early, crushing triumph of his own Protestant ideology. If that means recruiting a celebrity author to the cause, Cecil will make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Shag’s initial attempts to dramatize the Gunpowder Plot fall flat; the more he looks into the conspiracy, the less Cecil’s official version holds up. How could a bunch of dandified Catholic noblemen muster the muscle and the know-how to dig, with their own lily white hands, a tunnel under Parliament? And if they somehow did so, why hasn’t anyone seen the tunnel or the presumably massive mounds of excavated dirt? How did the plotters acquire gunpowder, a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ closely monopolized by the state?

Assailed by such doubts, Shag tries his hand at investigative reporting. He bluffs his way into the Tower and interviews imprisoned conspirators. He witnesses the marks of torture and hears harrowing tales of religious persecution. He even gets to meet the alleged mastermind of the plot, Father Henry Garnet (Richard Elmore), a covert Jesuit who is the wise and humane pastor of England’s hard-pressed underground Catholics flock.

Garnet has penned a treatise on Equivocation, a word-parsing technique to parry loaded questions with studiously ambiguous answers. Jacobean England had no time for such legal niceties as Fifth Amendment-style protections, so, for Catholics who fell into Cecil’s clutches, Equivocation was the best hope to avoid incriminating themselves without (technically, at least) committing the sin of lying.

Realizing there’s more than one version of the Gunpowder story, Shag recasts his play as a courtroom drama so each side can have its say. Cecil gets hold of a draft script and threatens Shag that, in its present form, the play is one-way ticket to the Tower for keeps. Terrified, Shag goes back to Garnet for a crash course in self-defensive Equivocation.

The old Jesuit explains that the key is to answer not the literal question that’s asked but the underlying question that’s meant instead. For instance, suppose Cecil’s agents raid a Catholic safe house and ask if the hosts are harboring fugitive priests. The question that is really meant is “May I murder your guests?” To which the only honest answer is “No.”

Armed with this insight, Shag goes back to revamp his Gunpowder play once more. The result – strange to tell – turns out to be Macbeth. Yep, that old chestnut from high school English (which is also playing this season at OSF – stay tuned for review).

Well, why not, after all? Equivocally speaking, Macbeth can be seen as a masterful “preemptive reaction strike.” Following Garnet’s advice, the script sidesteps the pitfalls of instant-replay news punditry. But still, it searchingly addresses deeper underlying questions in the Gunpowder episode – matters of loyalty, fate, free will, moral agency.

At the same time, Macbeth sounds an appropriately cautionary note about the horror and ultimate futility of regicide, the Gunpowder conspirators’ purported crime. And the play fawningly legitimates the Jacobean ascension with a prophecy – erroneous, as we now know – that King James’ lineage, the Scottish royal House of Stuart (descended from Macbeth’s nemesis, Banquo) would reign in perpetuity.

Then, too, the script suffers no shortage of witches. At the royal première performance of Macbeth (at least as depicted in Equivocation), the King is childishly delighted, while Cecil is left speechless in chagrin.

Besides solving The Bard’s authorial dilemma,  Father Garnet offers Shag some pastoral guidance on how to use Equivocal indirection to cope with his grief for the lost Hamnet. To regain your son, the old priest advises, look to your daughter. In a poignant scene, Shag lets Judith know that he actually had cared enough to eavesdrop on all those lonely-little-girl stories she’d thought she was keening just to herself in her solitary childhood.

In fact, these rambling, childish recitations of Judith’s form the basis for a series of odd, genre-bending ‘chick lit’ plays in the later Shakespearean cannon – Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. “They all have the same story – those last plays,” Judith explains in an epilogue to Equivocation. “A father throws away his daughter. And nothing will ever be right until he gets her back.” One of the plays on this season’s Ashland docket, All’s Well That Ends Well (see review), might arguably fit in this mold, although it was actually written a few years before Macbeth.

If all this revisionist history, pop psych and feminist lit-crit sounds suspiciously speculative and modern (or perhaps post-modern), it’s not by accident or omission. Cain has not set out here to write a period-perfect, factually definitive costume drama.

Rather he has recruited a gamut of nominally Jacobean characters to run a playfully improbable “what-if” thought experiment. But the deadly serious underlying themes are very much of our own times: media manipulation, “enhanced interrogation,” “weapons of mass destruction,” “clash of civilizations,” “collateral damage.”

Lest anyone miss the point of these inter-temporal ironies, Cain has his Jacobeans toss off incongruously prescient one-liners. Cecil gets a lion’s share of these gags. At one point, chiding Shag’s reticence, he predicts The Bard will become “the only major author whose very existence will be a matter of debate.” Or, when Shag asks what will happen after the fervid sectarian rivalries of his day cease to matter to anyone anymore, Cecil prophecies that “you yourself will become a kind of secular religion;” people will attend  Shakespearean performances with the reverence they once reserved for church – a fair description of at least part of the OSF audience.

To further highlight the artificial theatricality of Equivocation, director Rauch has four of his six actors (Haugen, Elmore, Tufts and Gregory Linington) constantly quick-switching between roles in mid-scene. Besides showcasing the virtuoso cast, this approach also underscores Cain’s principal theme: the fluid nature of personal identity. “We’re all fools; we’re all noble; we’re all royal,” as Shag admonish a young acolyte.

It’s up to us to choose which role we want to be. Nor is it a once-and-for-all choice, but one that has to be renewed instant by instant – the “controlled hallucination” that Borges talks about. But by the final curtain, Equivocation leaves Shag (and maybe the rest of us) a little less haunted by the “hated sense of unreality” and a little closer to the epiphany with which Borges concludes his essay:

“History records that, before or after he died, he found himself before God and he asked: “I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man – myself.” The voice of God replied from a whirlwind: ‘But I, too, am not one self; I dream the world as you dreamed your work, dear Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you.

‘You, like me, are many persons-and none.'”

lincoln-kaye-mugLincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

Lincoln Kaye
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.
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