Hard to care about this self-aware, show-business Shakespeare

In the first scene of playwright Bill Cain's smug overachiever of a comedy, "Equivocation" at the Victory Gardens Theater, you feel more like you're watching some trendy self-aware sitcom than a play set in 1605. Look, there's that seasoned comic player Marc Grapey zinging sardonic one-liners as if he were playing that cynical producer Max Bialystock, as voiced by David Mamet! There's Mark Montgomery racing through the clever text as if Aaron Sorkin were sitting on his shoulder, screaming "Faster! Flatter! Snarkier!"

For a few minutes, you go along happily enough with this farcical flow. Cain, who first wrote this play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where they need some theater nerd-friendly laughs amid all their high-art offerings, is positing a gleefully anachronistic world where Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men talk like they're in showbiz, circa right now, peppering his dialogue with little "Shakespeare in Love"-like gags that will make Shakespearean experts and theater insiders feel as if their membership in that sophisticated club is being fully appreciated.

The inciting-incident shtick is that an emissary of the young king (Montgomery) wants Shakespeare — here known as Shag, in another gag best appreciated by Oxfordians who've studied the controversy as to whether Shakespeare really wrote the plays attributed to him — to adapt a royal novel about the Gunpowder Plot, wherein some mysterious personages attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Shag, a savvy old hand who well knows the perils of writing on commission, smells trouble as surely as a modern playwright being handed some lousy self-published novel by a rich old board member and being told to make lemonade. But, well, power talks.

If "Equivocation" were a 90-minute romp, preferably with light-touch doppelgangers of the likes of Rupert Everett in the cast, it would be well and good. But Cain ("Stand-Up Tragedy") has loftier thematic ambitions, involving Shakespeare's exploration into the political machinations of the plot and, at times, the very real oppression and persecution of some of those in its way. Yet further, he wants us to believe that this project might somehow help Shag to deal with the death of his son (Shakespeare really did lose a son) and repair his relationship with his daughter, Judith (the very flat Minita Gandhi), who likely was illiterate in real life, but here is conceived as a brooding, oversmart teenager with a cold dad and a flaky mom who, she says, is "mudding the marriage pool for me."

And that's where director Sean Graney's production starts to collapse. Simply put, Graney initially has his actors step so far out into the world of out-and-out farce — belting out their lines non-naturalistically and at breakneck speed, and concocting all manner of physical business — it's impossible to follow along with these characters when the play turns darker and more complex. They are just not credible or vulnerable enough for us to care.

We go from Pythonesque antics to emotionalism to poignancy and back again, and when a script wants to do all of that, the director just has to build a stronger strap upon which game passengers can hang as the careening train goes lurching down the rails. None of the meta-divisions here is clean enough. And consistency is nowhere in the building; one scene actually involves a character, played by the accomplished comic Arturo Soria, getting quite severely beaten, which is really not very funny. One might be able to go to such places if the production were set up as some kind of dramedy, but when you start out watching a cross between "Spamalot" and "Don't Dress for (Your Jacobean) Dinner," you're just not able to give two shakes of a lamb's tail about whether this Shag dude can learn to channel his grieving about his lost son.

"Equivocation" is not bereft of laughs. It has some appeal as a field trip, or literary treasure hunt, for graduate students of the humanities. Nor is it without smarts: Cain quite cleverly works Shakespeare's biography (such as it is) into his yarn, poking fun at everything from the Bard's notorious pandering to the Tudors in "Richard III" to his obsession with killing off his characters — when confronted with that criticism, Shag gets defensive, arguing that war dead should not be included in the count. And there is one genuinely hilarious scene featuring the very funny Bruce A. Young's Richard, stuck playing King Lear half-naked with only some fool for company.

But in this incarnation, at least, "Equivocation" has too little heart. It lives up to its name and goes on and on and on, leaving you as eager for the exits as a fickle freshman being force-fed "Titus Andronicus."



When: Through Oct. 14

Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $20-$50 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardenstheater.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • 'Welcome to Me' is highly gawkable
    'Welcome to Me' is highly gawkable

    “Why doesn’t it look like ‘Oprah’?” Alice (Kristen Wiig) asks about the production value of her recently launched, guest-free talk show. Responds one of the many employees who can’t believe this series is happening: “Because you ate a cake made out of hamburger and started crying.”

  • Even the outtakes are predictable in 'Hot Pursuit'
    Even the outtakes are predictable in 'Hot Pursuit'

    In February 2013, Melissa McCarthy starred in an unfunny, aggressive road movie (“Identity Thief”). Four months later, she was the wild card to Sandra Bullock’s straight arrow in an incredibly generic buddy cop comedy (“The Heat”). Opening June 5, McCarthy stars in the very funny “Spy” as Susan...

  • Rauner to aldermen: 'For Chicago to get what it wants, Illinois must get what it needs'
    Rauner to aldermen: 'For Chicago to get what it wants, Illinois must get what it needs'

    In an unusual and perhaps unprecedented speech, Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday dropped in at City Hall and offered a time-tested political horse trade: support his controversial pro-business, anti-union agenda, and he'll help Chicago out of its financial free fall.

  • Is Riot Fest dividing the community?

    The questionable return of Riot Fest to Humboldt Park has polarized the community with the local alderman unwaivering in his opposition and the festival organizers launching a full-court press to bring the three-day music festival back.

  • Mayor: Approval of Burge victims fund a step toward 'removing a stain'
    Mayor: Approval of Burge victims fund a step toward 'removing a stain'

    In a dramatic moment Wednesday, the Chicago City Council rose to acknowledge victims of torture at the hands of former police Cmdr. Jon Burge before approving a $5.5 million reparations package that Mayor Rahm Emanuel said shows Chicago is willing to deal with the dark chapter in its history.

  • Clerk stabbed, robbed at Bucktown store
    Clerk stabbed, robbed at Bucktown store

    A knife-wielding man stabbed and robbed a store clerk Wednesday afternoon inside a Bucktown store.