Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” revolves around a question: “To be or not to be.” Bill Cain’s “Equivocation,” a fantastical riff on the famed playwright’s life, poses an equally stark choice: “Lie or die.”
The year is 1606. King James I has been on the English throne for three years, thanks in large part to the political gamesmanship of his secretary of state, Robert Cecil. James recently survived the Gunpowder Plot, and Cecil enlists Shagspeare, as he’s called here, to write a play about the assassination attempt.
Shagspeare tries to turn down the commission. After all, he’s in the midst of writing his magnum opus — a tragedy about a mad king wandering a heath in his underwear. Political pressure and hard cash convince him otherwise. As he delves into the details of the plot, however, the government’s version of events becomes less and less plausible. Does he maintain the status quo with a propaganda piece or risk it all for the truth?
In this production by Walking Shadow Theatre Company, director Amy Rummenie and an excellent ensemble attack this dense, intricate and heady piece of speculation with gusto, tempering complex philosophical arguments with broad comedy. While “Equivocation” comes in at a little over three hours, Rummenie’s brisk and modulated pacing keeps the action engaging throughout. The six actors take on a multiplicity of characters as conversations elide into rehearsals and dialogues into soliloquies.
Damon C. Mentzer’s Shagspeare is an appealing if exasperated Everyman, desperate to negotiate his way out of the moral dilemma so he can focus on his posterity.
Peter Simmons offers a stellar turn as the corrupt and devious Cecil, imbuing the role with a dry wit and a razor-edged sense of the sinister. Mitch Ross’ James is a keenly funny yet chilling portrait of willful and amoral authority, while Edwin Strout provides a wonderfully bloviating state’s attorney.
John Heimbuch, who stepped in at the last minute due to an actor emergency, provides adept, thoughtful and mostly off-book performances as Shagspeare’s friend and colleague Richard Burbage and a priest who’s been embroiled in the plot.
As if “Equivocation” didn’t have enough on its plate, Cain throws in a complex relationship between Shagspeare and his daughter Judith (played with graceful understatement by Eva Gemlo). It’s a clever choice that adds emotional heft.
With scarcely a false step, this richly textured and skillfully realized production takes a 400-year-old political context and makes it feel like breaking news.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.