John Pankow, Remy Auberjonois, and David Pittu
in Equivocation
(© Joan Marcus)
John Pankow, Remy Auberjonois, and David Pittu
in Equivocation
(© Joan Marcus)
Not even the most sophisticated GPS system could possibly navigate all the twists and turns of Bill Cain's inventive and remarkably clever Equivocation, which is now getting its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in a gorgeously fluid production helmed by Tony Award winner Garry Hynes.

Still, it is perhaps only fitting that a play about William Shakespeare feels as unnecessarily overstuffed as the Bard's later plays, full of too many themes and plot digressions to be easily digested in one sitting. Occasionally, a little less matter and a little more art would be useful here.

The ingenious set-up is that Shakespeare (John Pankow, nicely impassioned if a little charmless) has been commissioned by King James I -- through his chief minister, the bitter, somewhat venomous Sir Robert Cecil (the always fine David Pittu) -- to write a play based on James' account of the famed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a group of disgruntled Catholics attempted unsuccessfully to blow up the King and the House of Lords.

It is a task Shakespeare would prefer not to complete, in part, because he has not fully given up on Catholicism. The other -- and seemingly larger -- issue for the Bard is that the story has no dramatic ending, nor do the facts, as presented, completely add up. So in his quest to fulfill his mission, Shakespeare interviews two of the Plot's accused conspirators -- Thomas Wintour (David Furr) and Father Henry Garnet (Michael Countryman) -- and what he learns furthers his resolve to set the record straight. Yet, as he realizes, to tell the whole truth is to put himself and his friends in mortal danger. To survive, he must learn equivocation -- the art of simultaneously lying and not lying.

Were all this not enough to occupy Shakespeare's mind -- not to mention this play -- Cain wants us to consider the role of the artist in a political society. He also throws in two other major subplots. The first is internecine warfare between the two leading members of Shakespeare's troupe, the veteran Richard Burbage and handsome, brash younger leading man Sharpe (played respectively by Countryman and Furr) that threatens the group's survival.

Secondly, Cain details Shakespeare's troubled relationship with his cynical, clearly unhappy daughter Judith (the sublime Charlotte Parry) -- whose twin brother had perished years earlier. Indeed, she and her father can barely speak to each other, both fully aware that Shakespeare would have preferred that his son had lived. Yet, it is Judith who ultimately saves the day by suggesting the troupe perform one of her father's unfinished plays -- one which Shakespeare handily rejiggers to reflect his feelings about James and Cecil.

Not surprisingly, Cain's dialogue makes many references to the Bard's canon, and a prior knowledge of Shakespeare's work will deepen one's enjoyment of the play. However, Cain goes out of his way to explain most of his in-jokes as well as much of the work's historical references. (Reading the brief program notes also proves very useful.)

Hynes has done a spectacular job of maintaining the flow of the piece, in which scenes instantly melt into each other and the actors switch into new characters (and back again) in nanoseconds. The show's most hilarious -- and remarkable -- display of this comes late in the play, during which Furr brilliantly portrays both a character in a Shakespeare play and the decidedly juvenile and somewhat idiotic James I, who is watching raptly in the audience.

Meanwhile, Francis O'Connor's spare set and quasi-modern costuming, David Weiner's subtle lighting, and David Van Tieghem's effective sound design all contribute to Hynes' sorcery, which makes Equivocation an often bewitching experience.