Perhaps the structure of “Equivocation” is a mirror on the mind of a great playwright, as he attempts to sort, file and repurpose the stimuli of his immediate environment, filled with the competing and conflicting interests of his royal sponsors, artistic collaborators and family members. (The play lumbers to an end glibly with a condensed version of one of the works in the canon that’s meant to reveal, a la “Shakespeare in Love,” the ways in which “real” events inform Shakespeare’s stories and characters.) Or maybe it’s all a mind game, the misleadingly digressive strands of plot clashing in a grand, three-hour act of equivocation.
Yes, “Equivocation” goes on and on, in a wearying, gear-switching marathon. Via the actors in the company of Shakespeare and Richard Burbage (Richard Elmore), Cain cracks endless inside jibes, about the misogyny of “King Lear,” the comic usefulness of twins, the collective tally of the dead in the histories and tragedies. It’s all conjured by a mere six actors from the Oregon company, led by the estimable Broadway and film veteran Anthony Heald — his liver was destined to be served with fava beans in “The Silence of the Lambs” — as the embodiment of Shakespeare, here identified as Shag.
On set designer Christopher Acebo’s square, wooden platform, backed by a concave wall suggestive of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Rauch and his actors enter the whirlwind of the play and its myriad devices: Cain resorts to meta-theatrics, plays-within-plays and episodes of time-bending. For most of the evening, the action occurs early in the reign of Elizabeth I’s successor, James I, when hostility dividing the realm’s Protestants and Catholics still boils. Shag is summoned by the king’s henchman, Sir Robert Cecil (a Richard III-like Jonathan Haugen), for an unorthodox commission: a play detailing the so-called Gunpowder Plot, in which 13 Catholics were accused of planning to blow up Parliament and assassinate the king.
The story’s core is catnip for iambic pentameter-parsers and others who live to imagine the artistic, religious and political skirmishes a survival-conscious Shakespeare might have had to navigate. Shag is intrigued by the Cecil offer, not only because he’s being asked to adapt an account composed by the king (John Tufts), but also because the assignment would give him a unique opportunity to write about current events — to be able for once to eschew metaphor and poetry and set down the plain “truth.”
“Equivocation” posits that Shakespeare might have been enchanted by investigative journalism. For as Shag digs into the story of the conspiracy, interviewing the condemned alleged plotters, he discovers that his entire inquiry may be built on a lie. (We know Shag is perpetually befuddled by the repeated looks of wide-eyed astonishment Heald flashes our way.)