By Mark Hughes Cobb
Published: Saturday, November 14, 2015 at 11:00 p.m.
There’s much to chew on in Bill Cain’s “Equivocation,” a play asking what would have happened if William Shakespeare had written about the failed assassination of King James I, known as the Gunpowder Plot.
It tangles with questions of authorship, and places silly putty on gaps in the life of our greatest writer, much the same as Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love.” But unlike that more-successful film — at least on comic and emotional levels — Cain’s work grapples more with concepts of truth, and the “invention of the human,” as Harold Bloom famously conceived it.
Director David Bolus has layered Brechtian flavor on the production closing today at the University of Alabama’s Allen Bales Theatre. It’s a work of ideas, hoping to create reflection, more than emotional empathy. Sounds in the theater pre-show include chamber-music recreations of classic rock, such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Those adaptations say “Look at this another way”: Is there a capital T truth at any time, much less hard times? Or is all truth a human invention, dependent on observation, analysis, interpretation?
Bolus’ actors come out at 15 to showtime, chatting amongst themselves, lifting panels off the stage floor to pull out costumes and small props; the wall-breaking effect has been done here before, though sometimes more theatrically.
This time it’s casually artless, almost off-putting, though fitting well with Bolus’ scheme: Though we are drawn into comic-melancholic interludes between Shakespeare and his daughter Judith — in Cain’s imagination, working as a laundry girl and general go-fer with Dad’s troupe — it’s not so much to feel their lives as to ponder how stories get written down, thus remembered, thus morphed into truth as we know it.
They’re working on a strong, nimble set by Charles Moncrief, with a suggestion of dark timbers and depth that can, assisted with able lighting by Jackson Curtright, serve as stage, as government chambers, as writer’s den. The cast is in on this plot within the (Gunpowder) Plot, seeking yet another plot. Leads range from the well-balanced, quietly authoritative, in multiple senses, David Trump as Shakespeare; to a tempered, tense, haunting performance by Caroline Ficken as Judith; to a nervy, dangerous Kelly Kohlman as Sir Robert Cecil, who seeks to be the writer behind the writer.
Also nicely realized in multiple roles, including Shakespeare’s co-players, are Elizabeth Perkinson, Blake Williams, Evan Ector, Alaric Rohol, Alaina Boukedes, Grey Buxton and Cameron Gray. It’s a well-integrated ensemble, harmonious in concert.
For Shakespeare fans, there’s joy in pondering possible sources of “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and others. Cain stretches credulity a bit, but doesn’t snap it, in suggesting the Bard’s loss of son Hamnet (Judith’s twin, he drowned at age 11, in Stratford, while Dad was at work in London) plays out in the storms and fancied reunion scenes of “Twelfth Night,” “Pericles” and others, and that reconciliations between father and daughter, as found in “Winter’s Tale,” “Tempest,” “Cymbeline” and “Pericles,” echo his own familial life.
It’s a script that does reward familiarity with the works.