07/23/2014 07:28 EDT | Updated 09/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Vancouver Play About Shakespeare More Drone Than Drama


Gerry Mackay as Globe actor Richard Burbage and Bob Frazer as Shakespeare. (Photo credit: David Blue)

Sure, "Equivocation" is a terrible title -- but the play is also terrible, so maybe the playwright got it right.

A very talented cast struggles valiantly through a text that rejects dramatic development at this Bard on the Beach show. This is too bad, because without a plot, "Equivocation" is just an endless stream of platitudes.

Bill Cain's play premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has received many American productions, including at the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Seattle Rep.

In this contemporary play about Shakespeare, the Renaissance playwright is called Shagspeare, or Shag for short. King James I, via his advisor, Sir Robert Cecil (Anousha Alamian), demands Shag write a play about the recently-thwarted plot to assassinate the king and blow up Parliament. His Majesty, it seems, is an amateur historian and has written a short narrative of the event. Sir Robert presents the document to Shakespeare and demands it be dramatized and staged.

Shag devotes most of his time to harassing friends and priests for advice on his dilemma. It is a drone reminiscent of the Ancient Mariner, another literary creation set upon the world to tell and retell his boring tale. This drama-free exercise consumes almost three hours of the audience's time.

For Cain's story to work, we must accept that at this late point in his career (he has just staged "King Lear"), Shakespeare has not yet learned how to create a sophisticated text that can simultaneously tell a harmless story and comment subversively on contemporary life. We are to imagine that the artist who created "Lear" and "Henry V" is unaccustomed to writing subversive meditations on power.

We are also asked to believe Shakespeare cared about posterity. Sir Robert appeals to Shag's vanity by assuring him this commission will be the play that earns Shag his immortality. But Shakespeare had no interest even in seeing his plays collected and published in his own lifetime. This may seem like quibble with history, but it makes the whole premise of "Equivocation" implausible.

Bob Frazer is the unfortunate actor burdened with Shag. He gives the character an essential humanity and works hard to help us care about the character's distress. He looks confused a lot and shouts when things go wrong. There is altogether too much shouting, courtesy of director Michael Shamata. He may think shouting somehow adds drama to a weak play, or perhaps he's just scrambling to keep his audience awake.


Rachel Cairns as Judith, Shakespeare's daughter (Photo credit: David Blue)

Shamata seems uncertain how to handle Judith (Rachel Cairns), Shakespeare's daughter. She's a bit of a narrator, speaking directly to the audience about her dad. The casual, flippant attitude comes across as glib and snotty. The performance makes her unsympathetic and therefore an unwelcome intrusion. References to her dead twin brother have no impact delivered in this fashion. Without emotional levels, the role does not work.

Anton Lipovetsky provides a very good performance. He takes the small role of the king and gives us a regal child. The characterization is comic and frightening. In the play's best scene, Lipovetsky plays an imprisoned, tortured priest. Shag visits him in search of truth (what else?), and the two share a touching moment when the victim is unable to stand and Shag holds and comforts him. Frazer and Shamata show here what they are capable of.

Those who play the actors in Shakespeare's Globe company are all good in these roles, including Alamian, Lipovetsky, Shawn Macdonald, and Gerry Mackay.

Mackay is also good in the role of the doomed priest, Father Henry Garnet. As Garnet, we get a noble character destroyed by circumstances and peaceful about the terrible fate that awaits him.

The text is littered with references to other Shakespeare plays that seem designed to flatter audience members familiar with these texts, and also to show off Cain's erudition. But what Cain manages here can be replicated by anyone with a dictionary of quotations.

"Equivocation" by Bill Cain, directed by Michael Shamata, is at Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival at Vanier Park in Vancouver until Sept. 19. Buy tickets here.