An explosive plot: Equivocation at Unison in New Paltz

Guy Fawkes mask (photo by Ben Fredericson)

Guy Fawkes mask (photo by Ben Fredericson)

The drama of last year’s positive DNA identification of a skeleton dug up from a Leicester parking lot as the remains of King Richard III made many of us aware for the first time of a growing movement in England to rehabilitate the much-maligned monarch’s historical reputation. Many now argue that Richard Crookback has gotten a bad rap, was probably not the culprit behind the deaths of the two young York princes in the Tower of London and was in fact, as Francis Bacon put it, “a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people.”

As with many iconic figures from English history, we have William Shakespeare to thank for much of our popular impressions of Richard III’s character. Like any artist of his day, the Bard of Avon was dependent for his living on the patronage of aristocrats; and those patrons wanted hagiography, not historical accuracy, for their ancestors. Thus, the House of Tudor’s mostly Lancastrian antecedents come off rather better than their Yorkish opponents in Shakespeare’s chronicles of the Wars of the Roses. The Bard knew which side his bread was buttered on.

Of course, it’s easier to manipulate public perception of events that happened before the lifetimes of one’s audiences, and the only time that Shakespeare deviated from that formula was when he wrote a play – widely considered one of his weakest efforts – about his patron Queen Elizabeth I’s father, King Henry VIII. Of his opinions on the burning political issues of his own day we have no record, except insofar as he was able to insinuate the most oblique of commentaries in between the lines of his plays.

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We do have some indication of pro-Catholic sympathies on both sides of his family tree, but those would have been extremely dangerous to express in England during Shakespeare’s day. So it’s no great surprise that the matter of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot – by far the most sensational news story of the Bard’s lifetime – was the sort of narrative that he wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole, however dramatic.

But what if he had? What if some wealthy and influential contemporary with an axe to grind had wanted to exploit Shakespeare’s talent for propaganda in free verse, and offered him a commission that he couldn’t refuse? How differently might contemporary Britons “Remember, remember, the Fifth of November” today if the Bard had gotten his hands on the real story, interviewing the indicted conspirators before their executions?

That’s the intriguing premise behind Equivocation, a contemporary play by Bill Cain, in which the would-be patron, King James’s trusted advisor Sir Robert Cecil, himself has something to hide with regard to the foiled plot to blow up the House of Lords. The playwright’s previous works include Stand Up Tragedy and Nine Circles; he developed the television series Nothing Sacred and most recently has written for House of Cards. It may also be significant that Cain is a Jesuit priest, writing about a historical event that is sometimes known as the “Jesuit treason.”

On one level, Equivocation is an exploration of the confluence of truth, art and artifice and the ethical choices that artists who work for a living must make. On another, it’s a speculation about the man, about whom we know so little, behind the deathless literary master: Cain spends some time probing the relationship between Shakespeare (called Shagespeare or Shag in the play) and his neglected daughter Judith, for example, as well as with the members of his acting troupe.

A review in Variety described Equivocation as “one of the most bracingly intelligent, sizzling theatrical American plays in a decade.” The play will have its regional premiere at the Unison Arts & Learning Center in New Paltz this Friday, March 21 and run for two weekends, performed by the Mohonk Mountain Stage Company. Christine Crawfis will direct, and the cast includes Phil Douglas, Rick Meyer, Jeff Battersby, Michael Frohnhoefer, William Connors and Alina Gonzalez.

Performances of Equivocation begin at 8 p.m. on Fridays, March 21 and 28, and Saturdays, March 22 and 29. Tickets cost $20 in advance for general admission, $15 for Unison members, and $25 at the door, $20 for Unison members. Students get in for half-price with a valid ID. To order tickets, visit www.unisonarts.org or call (845) 255-1559.

Mohonk Mountain Stage Company presents Equivocation by Bill Cain, Friday/Saturday, March 21/22 & 28/29, 8 p.m., $25/$20/$15, Unison Arts Center, 68 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz; (845) 255-1559, www.unisonarts.org.

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