Shakespeare, now starring at Geffen Playhouse

As he watched the World Trade Center towers implode, Bill Cain, playwright and native New Yorker, felt a surge of fury pass through him. But as an ordained Jesuit priest, he was able to tap into another, equally powerful emotion. “I knew the only way to respond to it was with tenderness as fierce as that anger,” he said recently. “And so the journey from rage to tenderness was what I felt my spiritual work had to be.”

For Cain, 62, that journey also turned out to be the writing of “Equivocation,” a speculative, cerebrally pyrotechnic historical drama set in London in 1605 that will open Wednesday and run through Dec. 20 at the Geffen Playhouse. A hint of the play’s scope and ambition is that its main character is the most celebrated, influential author in the history of the English language.

But William Shakespeare, nicknamed “Shag” and portrayed by Joe Spano (an Emmy Award nominee for “Hill Street Blues”), is merely one of the complex, colorful personages who populate “Equivocation.”

The action takes place during a time of hair-raising and head-lopping political treachery and cultural upheaval. The recently crowned Scottish king of England, James I, aided by the deviously brilliant statesman Robert Cecil, is tightening Protestantism’s grip as the official faith of the land. But many recently converted English men and women -- possibly, the play suggests, including Shakespeare -- still are struggling to reconcile the vestiges of their old Roman Catholic beliefs and practices with the new breakaway Christian religion declared by James’ Protestant predecessor, King Henry VIII.

In one of his previous lives, Cain founded and ran a Shakespearean repertory theater in Boston, and “Equivocation” revels in Bard-like stage business such as the use of deliberate anachronisms and invented dialogue for real historical figures. In a sense, he is giving Shakespeare a taste of his own artistry by placing words in the playwright’s mouth.

“I think the marriage of Bill and Shakespeare is very, very good,” said David Esbjornson, the Geffen production’s director, laughing, “and I would say maybe Shakespeare gets a few words he might not have wanted.”

In honoring Shakespeare’s famous adage that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” the male supporting cast of Harry Groener, Patrick J. Adams, Brian Henderson and Connor Trinneer all play multiple, often dueling roles. Groener, for instance, doubles as Henry Garnett, head of an underground Jesuit mission in England, and the actor Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s trusted theatrical brother-in-arms, who battles to keep the acting company together as the political tensions cleaving England threaten the troupe. The final role is Shakespeare’s daughter Judith (played by Troian Bellisario), who’s been estranged from her father since the death of her twin brother, Hamnet.

During the course of Cain’s two-act work, the cast must convincingly summon Shakespeare’s troupe as well as re-create several harrowing scenes from “King Lear” and “Macbeth.” But they’re also called on to flesh out the court intrigues of James, who was Shakespeare’s artistic patron. “Shakespeare did very well, very, very well,” Cain said. “He became a rich man writing for a corrupt government. And I began to wonder about the moral dilemma of that.”

The half-dozen performers also enact episodes relating to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the subsequent trial and execution of its alleged English Catholic plotters, including Garnett. Some of the accused “confessed” their guilt, usually with the encouragement of the rack and other gruesome torture implements, while others -- well, you be the judge.

If this combustible amalgam -- terrorist activity, religious fanaticism, conspiracy theories, conniving theocrats and a political atmosphere in which saying the wrong thing could land a body in prison and his head on a pike -- sounds disturbingly familiar, you’re beginning to grasp Cain’s intent.

As he explains it, Cain had another crucial encounter involving a tower that brought “Equivocation” into being. It happened some time after the Sept. 11 attacks when he was visiting the Tower of London and happened to notice a sign over a medieval rack that claimed no one ever was tortured on that devilish device because of his religious beliefs. Technically, Cain knew, that was true, because Catholics and other non-Protestants were regarded as traitors to the state, not the church, and were persecuted as such.

But the sign’s slippery, literal-minded language gave him pause, especially when he also noticed scratched into the Tower’s walls the 400-year-old engravings of an imprisoned Jesuit priest.

“It knocked me to my knees, quite literally,” Cain recalled, his voice cracking with emotion, “and I thought, ‘Well, that’s what I want to write. I want to write something as true as a last word engraved in a wall by a prisoner of conscience facing his death.’ ”

“Equivocation” was first staged last summer by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. That production is traveling to Seattle Repertory Theatre, and other stagings are planned this season at the Marin Theatre Company and the Manhattan Theatre Company. A previous play of Cain’s, “Stand-Up Tragedy,” based on his experiences teaching on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was produced at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in summer 1989.

“Gordon Davidson’s theater of social conscience was enormously formative for me,” he said.

While the Geffen production of “Equivocation” doesn’t go out of its way to point out parallels between the responses to the events of Nov. 5, 1605, and those of Sept. 11, 2001, the soft-spoken Cain makes no bones about his belief that those two historical moments share certain qualities.

“It struck me very much that the politics of the United States is a politics of radical division,” he said. “And what we are trying to do now, as Shakespeare tries to do in the play, is to write a new soul into the country.”

‘The power to transform’

Like Cain’s own temperament, “Equivocation” strikes a rare balance between erudition and accessibility, contemplation and gut-check emotion. Amy Levinson, the Geffen’s literary manager and dramaturge, said Cain believes that good art, like theology, “has the power to transform people.”

“The way this very large, intellectual play became as personal and intimate as it did is because he has this relation to theater,” she continued. “He has a superior intellect. He has a base of knowledge and a mind to process it. But on the flip side of that he’s very raw and open and emotional.”

In a sense, delicate balancing acts are the soul of the play, both thematically and structurally. Its title alludes to the concept, argued by Garnett in a long treatise, that it is morally defensible to give opaque or misleading answers to questions that are themselves lies or verbal traps. At one point when he’s put on trial, Garnett comes close to stating the theme of the play: “How to speak the truth in difficult times.”

Cain offered another historical example: “If you were in Germany in the 1930s, and the S.S. knocked on your door and said, ‘Miep Gies, are you hiding Anne Frank upstairs in this place of business?’ The true answer is, ‘Yes, I am.’ ” But, he continued, the real question being asked is, “ ‘Will I let you in to harm these people?’ And the answer to that is ‘No.’ ”

Cain speaks of theater the same way he speaks of his family home in Woodside, Queens, which he describes as a tightknit working-class neighborhood. Growing up during the civil rights era, attending Jesuit schools and tutoring in Brooklyn’s tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, he gained an awareness of live theater as a community-binding ritual akin to religion. He later honed that sense while performing in coffee houses, mental wards and children’s hospitals.

However distant we may be from Shakespeare’s time or not, theater’s role remains much the same, Cain suggested. “Theater has always been inclusivity. It’s one of the few places that’s always said, ‘The door is open, everyone is welcome in here.’ So the theater company itself becomes the crucible in which a new unity is forged.”