As Juliet tells Romeo at the beginning of their ill-fated romance, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It means the names of things don’t affect what they are. But in Bill Cain’s “Equivocation,” the connection between a word and its possible meanings is everything.
Set two years after King James I ascended the English throne, “Equivocation” imagines that Shakespeare -- or Shagspeare here -- has been hired to write a play about the recently thwarted Gunpowder Plot. While that plot fizzled before Parliament could be destroyed, this plot crackles with wit and smarts, examining the role of an artist and what it means to tell the truth.
Still haunted by the death of his son and having trouble writing “King Lear,” Shag (Rafael Untalan) is commissioned by British Secretary of State Robert Cecil (Steven Carpenter) to write a play about the treasonous Catholic conspiracy that aimed to assassinate the Protestant king. After turning down the offer, Shag is informed by the ruthless Cecil that he has no choice.
While Shag works with his acting company to dramatize the Gunpowder Plot, he uncovers a number of issues with the story that’s been fed to him and his fellow Englishmen. In investigating what really happened, Shag is pulled into an ethical maelstrom of lies, torture and death.
Behind this curveball of a show that bends history and literature is director Jan Powell, who does her best work in Richmond since “Macbeth” two years ago. Lead by Untalan as the distraught Shag, the entire ensemble deftly navigates Cain’s script, jumping from the Tower of London to the Globe Theater and back again. With the exception of Untalan and Zoe V. Speas as Shag’s dryly humorous daughter, Judith, the cast members (Carpenter, Mitchell Grant, Joe Pabst, and Nicholas Wilder) play multiple roles, effortlessly transitioning from actors to kings and priests.
In his script, Cain plays with the term “equivocation,” which by definition means to mislead in instances where a word or a phrase can have more than one meaning. One of the play’s best moments occurs when Shag complains that the conspiracy is difficult to dramatize because there simply isn’t any plot. Cecil charges him with treason, causing Shag to cry out that he was just giving literary criticism. Untalan plays Shag as a weary man trying his best to balance his allegiance to his country and himself, and Carpenter brings enough manipulative menace to Cecil to conjure thoughts of Richard III.
Shakespeare’s work often is reinterpreted to comment on other political and social scenarios, but in this play it’s Shakespeare himself who is reinterpreted to look at the War on Terror. As the American government continues to create phrases and rewrite definitions of terms, we’re not as far off from George Orwell’s warnings as we’d like to think. If the play hadn’t already driven home the idea that it’s trying to relate to modern issues of terrorism and torture, Cecil mentions how a conservative descendant would later lead the House of Lords, a reference contemporary politician Robert Gascoyne-Cecil.
At two hours and 45 minutes it’s a bit lengthy, but “Equivocation” surely is one of the best shows staged this year. That’s a truth for which no equivocation is necessary.
Virginia Repertory Theatre, Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare’s “Equivocation” runs through Oct. 19 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.