If writing plays doesn’t work out, career-wise, for Bill Cain, he can probably be quite successful as a theater critic. In his “Equivocation,” which opened last weekend at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison, he has William Shakespeare say about “Macbeth,” “Five acts of politics and pornography, nothing more. It will run for centuries!” He also has Shakespeare daughter dismiss “King Lear” as a play about “an old man who causes the death of his three daughters and, when it’s over, everyone feels sorry for him.”
A great deal of the entertainment value of this 2009 comedy comes in the literary references — some very obvious, and some more subtle. It’s also a story that seems very modern, despite being set in 1606.
The plot: King James I, through his prime minister Robert Cecil, tries to hire Shakespeare (nicknamed Shag) to write a play based on the Gunpowder Plot, a recent event in British history that was basically a terrorist conspiracy against the Crown. They want to make sure that the Plot is remembered, in the future, in a way that is flattering to them, and figure that since Shag’s plays are likely to continue to be performed for many years, that’s their best shot.
Shag resists becoming their propagandist. He also has practical problems, as a dramatist: What happens to all the dirt from the tunnel that the conspirators are digging? Won’t the workingmen who see the play know that a project like this has got to generate a ton of dirt, and want to see it? And how can you have a satisfying ending when the Gunpowder Plot is ultimately foiled? The play builds to an explosion that doesn’t happen, he worries.
But the actors at the Globe Theatre are hungry for the money they will make from the play, and talk Shag into writing it. Shag struggles, but eventually figures out a way to satisfy James, Cecil and himself — by adapting another play he had been working on, “Macbeth.” (Shakespearean scholars have indeed found many connections, over the years, between the Gunpowder Plot and “Macbeth”).
There are subplots, too, involving the trial of a priest accused of participating in the Gunpowder Plot, and Shakespeare’s strained relationship with his adult daughter, Judith.
The central conflict is between Shag and Cecil. James Michael Reilly, a 23-year veteran of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, does a good job of making his Shag seem like a real artist; he always seems a little detached from what’s going on, as if he’s above it all, thinking about more important things while placating Cecil. Dominic Comperatore, meanwhile, makes Cecil into a truly hissable villain. Matthew Stucky gets some big laughs as the goofy King James I, but it’s really a minor role; Stucky also portrays one of the Globe actors, as does Comperatore.
“This is the official version of the event, so it must last,” Cecil tells Shag, at one point, about the play he wants him to write. He soon adds, though, in a statement that might have seemed plausible at the time, but now seems like a ridiculous underestimate, “I believe your plays will still be being done … 50 years from now!”
We know now, of course, that theater companies will probably continue to present Shakespeare’s plays for as long as there are theater companies. And as long as they do, Shakespeare fans will also be able to get some laughs, and some thought-provoking theatrical twists, from “Equivocation.”
The play runs through Oct. 4. Visit ShakespeareNJ.org.