Tangled schemes of kings, bards, and comic foils

Equivocation800
Eric Hissom as Shag and Ian Merrill Peakes as Richard in Arden Theatre Company's production of "Equivocation."

It's not yet the Fifth of November, but Arden Theatre Company still remembers England's Gunpowder Plot, via Bill Cain's 2009 drama Equivocation. Cain, a Jesuit priest, explores the entanglements among Shakespeare - here tagged with an alternate spelling of his name, Shagspeare - King James I, Sir Robert Cecil, and the nature of playwriting, among other topics crammed into a play of Shakespearean proportions.

Of course, there's only one Shakespeare (or is there? Cain also winks at that question a few times), and after its first two hours, this rich, satisfying work becomes an indulgent farewell to its characters and retreading of its own well-trod themes. But if ever there were reason to remain with interesting company who nonetheless overstays their welcome, this production is it.

For those initial hours, all elements connect in a fascinating, funny, and terrifying world of intrigue and intellectual entrapment. Terence Nolen's direction, this ensemble, David Gordon's minimal set - wood posts and platform, canvas curtain on a rope - Rosemarie McKelvey's casual blend of contemporary clothing with Jacobean details, and Jorge Cousineau's seat-rattling sound design, serve Cain better than he serves himself.

He writes some great lines, though, and coming from this cast, they sound fantastic. Ian Merrill Peakes' Richard (presumably Richard Burbage, one of the Globe's original shareholders) proclaims upon a first reading of King Lear: "If we can get through his 'comedies don't have to be funny' period, we can get through anything." There's affection for aging "Shag," portrayed by Eric Hissom as a searching Everyman. Cain paints Cecil as a villain who commissions a play that will put to rest both the Catholic faith and controversy over the Plot. Dan Hodge's Cecil limps and sneers, the man who quietly orchestrated the peaceful transition of power between Elizabeth and James, ever belittled by the king, who calls him "Beagle."

Sean Lally plays multiple roles, but none as sharp as James, the "wisest fool in Christendom." He's actively bisexual, with a fascination for witches (an inspiration for Macbeth both here and in real life), a charming Scottish brogue, a halo of chestnut curls, and a sadistic gleam in his eye owing not a little to Game of Thrones' humiliation-happy Ramsay Bolton. Lally and Hodge, dangerous, combustible, are all the gunpowder this plot needs.

Anthony Lawton tears into multiple roles, comic and otherwise, and Campbell O'Hare brings as much gravity as she can to Shag's daughter Judith. But her story gets shuffled among so many big ideas that it feels more like an afterthought, included to provide a woman's touch.

Nolen, also no fool, juggles these big ideas and deftly keeps them in the air as long as he can. After all, as Equivocation notes, even Shagspeare dropped the ball after a while.

Through Dec. 13 at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. Tickets: $36 to $50. Information: 215-922-1122, or www.ArdenTheatre.org.

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