GunpowderPlot, quills

(artwork: Scott McKowen for STNJ)

Regrettably, this review comes after the run of Equivocation by award-winning playwright Bill Cain has ended at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Still, I hope you’ll watch for this sharply witty and thought-provoking play locally or, if you’re from the NJ-NY region, will take a good look at STNJ’s future offerings. They’re having a terrific season.

It’s 1606, King James I is on the English throne (one of the country’s Scottish kings), and he has written a story. Powerful Prime Minister Sir Robert Cecil asks Shag (Shakespeare) to turn the king’s story into a play, with the promise of considerable reward to the Globe theater company if he is successful, and, if he is not, well . . . best not dwell on the details.

The story deals with the very recent event known as The Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholic men tunneled under Parliament, smuggled in 36 barrels of gunpowder, and would have blown up the king, his family, many notables, and the whole House of Lords on Parliament’s opening day. A mysterious letter alerts the king, and the plot is foiled. A man named Guy Fawkes is caught, and the plotters, whose names are gradually extracted via torture, are hideously murdered. Cecil knows a dramatization by Shag will fix the treasonous details about the powder plot in the memory of history.

While the theater company is overjoyed by the prospect of a royal commission, Shag resists writing about current-day events, especially as he comes to doubt the truth of the official version. The risks of being truthful are grimly evident, yet he won’t write a lie.

But what is a lie? The arrest of Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit who wrote a book called Equivocation, brings this question to light. The priest asks his inquisitor, “If the king were in your house, and his enemies came to your door asking if he were there, would you say ‘yes’—and betray him—or would you say ‘no’—a lie?” Equivocation, the priest tells Shag, allows you to look at the question behind the question. And the real question in this instance is, “May I come in and kill the king?” And the answer is “no.” This is the key to resolving Shag’s struggle with the king’s powder plot story, too.

Cain’s play is deeply interesting historically, politically, religiously, theatricallly, and, as director Paul Mullins said in a post-show discussion, if you want to see it as current-day political allegory, “that’s OK, too.” At the same time it’s fast-moving, full of action, humor, and clever ripostes. Only six cast members play all the parts—many of them taking on 10 or more roles—and yet the staging was so expertly managed and so well acted that who they were playing was perfectly clear, moment to moment. This production had some shocking special effects too.

STNJ newcomers this year Matthew Stucky as Sharpe (a player, the King, plotter Wintour, etc.) and Dominic Comperatore as Nate (a player, Cecil, etc.), and long-time company utility infielder Kevin Isola as Armin (a player, a witch, states’ attorney, Lady Macbeth, etc.) deserve special mention, though all performances were strong.

Regarding The Gunpowder Plot, the program notes say, “The only thing we know with certainty about the event itself is that it could not possibly have occurred in the way the government claimed.” Accepted at face value for centuries, the government’s story has elicited more recent doubts, and even Parliament’s official website suggests the plot might have been the work of agents-provocateurs who wanted to discredit the Jesuits and cement the Protestant religion in the land.