Oregon Shakespeare Festival accountants, rejoice: In his world-premiere production of Bill Cain's magnificent Equivocation, artistic director Bill Rauch has found a work that pleases both OSF's Bard-worshipping traditionalist subscribers and those of us who crave groundbreaking theater. Set in 1606, Equivocation finds the festival's namesake caught between his artistic compulsion to write true history and King James' demand (conveyed by his ruthlessly cynical, Rovian minister Robert Cecil, masterfully played by Jonathan Haugen) that he produce a theatrical retelling of the Gunpowder Plot, England's notorious act of alleged would-be terrorism, that supports the regime's dishonest narrative.
Equivocation yokes the behind-the-throne Catholic vs. Protestant politics of Michael Hirst's film Elizabeth to the offstage antics of Shakespeare in Love. But it's a far richer, more substantial creation than either: Its plays within plays (six actors play about 20 roles) explore the conflict between church and state; an implicit indictment of the paranoid Bush-Cheney mentality of national security over national integrity; speculation about the playwright's psychological motivations, including the death of his son and survival of the boy's twin sister; the ethical conundrums artists confront in the face of state intimidation; and an examination of the veracity of history and the nature of theater itself.
Despite its seriousness and complexity, Equivocation manages to be both dramatically gripping (how will the fretful Shakespeare, well played by Anthony Heald, do the King's bidding without prostituting his talents on an official lie?) and darkly funny—and the more you know about the playwright's life and work, the funnier it is.
Equivocation is a play for the ages, but Rauch's deft direction, the fine cast's uniformly splendid performances and the usual lavish OSF production values make this premiere performance an absolute must-see for anyone who cares about history and theater. It's one of the finest plays I've seen in 14 years of attending OSF, a major new contribution to American drama and more than reason enough to make the five-hour journey south.
Angus Bowmer Theatre, 15 S Pioneer St., Ashland, 800-219-8161. Various showtimes thrice weekly through Oct. 31. $20-$91