Friday, September 28, 2012

REVIEW: ITS FALSE O'ERWEIGHS ITS TRUE - 'Equivocation' at Victory Gardens Theatre

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Last season, during the supreme freshman outing of Artistic Director Chay Yew, Victory Gardens Theater was among the only sure bets in Chicago. Their parade of smoldering premieres like Jackie Sibblies Drury's "We Are Proud To Present," Luis Alfaro's "Oedipus el Rey," and the mounting of the "Ameriville" by Universes were probing plays, culturally relevant to this community, multi-generational, and stylistically innovative, to boot. They were the kind of plays that Chicago sorely needs, but rarely ever gets. However, opening the venerable theatre’s, otherwise tremendous, 2012-2013 roster with Bill Cain's overlong, masturbatory skit, "Equivocation," sweeps all of those extremely promising developments swiftly under the rug. Directed by Sean Graney, Cain’s all-knowing rumination on truth in storytelling is thwarted by Shakespearean dentist jokes, better suited to a summer festival’s dark night than the Zacek-McVay Theatre.

Cain, the founder of the Boston Shakespeare Company, has added yet another laborious work to the Bard parody genre. Shakespeare is called "Shagspeare" in this snide and contemptuous fan fiction, part "Shakespeare in Love", part "Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged", and, to a much lesser extent, part "V For Vendetta." The playwright, inspired by the September 11th Attacks' parallels to the Gun Powder Plot of 1605, writes, with divided attention, about the challenges of truthfully telling a story with a monarchy breathing down your neck – an idea far more viable than its dreadful execution would imply.

King James’ representative, Cecil (Mark Montgomery), asks Shag – a blunt Marc Grapey, giving a smarmy performance reminiscent of his turn in last season's "Race"– to dramatize the Plot, but the crown wants the story told with an emphasis on Fawkes and Friends' treasonous dalliances. However, informational interviews that the Bard conducts tell quite a different story. And as the assembler, Shag must wrestle with the proper truth while the perpetrators are gruesomely sentenced to death (off stage, of course). 

In the end, Shag folds, taking a few details of "The True Historie of The Gunpowder Plot" and hastily throwing in some pieces from another little known draft, “Macbeth,” instead, which the Scottish-born, foppishly rendered King James (Arturo Soria, not quite differentiating his many characters) goes gaga for. King James I historically did enjoy "Macbeth" very much, greatly appreciating the kindly and godlike persona imbued upon the murdered King Duncan. See, the history is actually fascinating, quite unlike Cain's treatment of it.

The alteration of Shakespeare's name to "Shagspeare" is the loudest of many slight details within the appealing circumstance that Cain has fiddled with to mimic Shagspeare's own troubles in bringing to thrilling life actual figures. Specifics of Shakespeare's household – his daughter, a strained device of a character played by Minita Gandhi,  in particular – are stuffed with made-for-tv sentiment in order to nab the audience's affection. But the unintended campy falseness of those father-daughter interactions combined with the proud stylistic liberties taken by the larger plot make for one big, soulless, empty evening of theatre. 

Cain has also crammed the play full of nauseating industry shop talk – because theatre patrons and practitioners don’t talk nearly enough about the theatre already. Close to the play’s beginning, Shagspeare accidentally stumbles upon theatrical realism, condemning his actors' flagellating arm gestures and attempting, with uneven result, to explain the less-is-more power of stillness. Shortly after that, another performer adds to the conjecture by proposing the concept of subtext. "But what do you really want?" What Cain expresses is that these people were on the brink of inventing the dramatic wheel, emotional truth usurping forlorn attempts at factual truth. But his changes and his strange affinity for modern realism are inconsequential, for there is not a truthful bone, emotional or factual, in this production’s massive body.

And perhaps that is what Cain is aiming for. "Equivocation," – the title incessantly repeated by every character – after all, implies an ambiguity of meaning in which one word can be defined in several different ways. "Truth" being a prime example. But it’s that knowingly clever ambiguity that derails the play's dramatic coherency altogether. The admirably conceived message is overshadowed by uninspired Shakespearean observational humor catered to disgruntled former literature students and Wiki Shakespeare scholars. And that is all well and good. There is a willing audience for such jabber. But the jokes simply serve no grander purpose than as palate cleansers for unappetizing, lengthly and unmoving scenes. And they don’t cleanse. They mercilessly thwart the mushy dregs of drama.

Love him or hate him, Williams Shakespeare irrefutably gave every single one of his characters an individual voice all their own. Cain’s voices, though, are painfully consistent – consistency, the playwright astutely points out, being “the death of drama.” Each and every character is as wooden as the next, both in their overly similar, quippy dialogue and the actors' heightened presentations. Director Sean Graney has staged a near-farce, but has not actively pushed the production far enough in that direction for distinctive style to come through.  The staging with the most personality occurs during the court performance of "Macbeth," with Soria energetically doubling as Macduff and King James, but it comes too late and matters little. An occasional Graneyism emerges – comical unison movement, muttered colloquial side commentary, etc. – but otherwise the play abounds with straightforward proscenium antics that cannot sustain a play of this length. Matching an already confused text with an even more confused tonality pulverizes any residual poignancy or humanity that might have otherwise been salvageable. -Johnny Oleksinski

'Equivocation' runs at Victory Gardens Theater through October 14. Visit for more information.