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An inventive, lively 'Equivocation' at Theatricum Botanicum

An inventive, lively 'Equivocation' at Theatricum Botanicum
King James I (Dane Oliver, left) and Secretary of State Robert Cecil (Alan Blumenfeld) watch a production of "Macbeth" with mixed reactions in Bill Cain's "Equivocation" at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum. (Ian Flanders)

It may sit uneasily with our notion of Shakespeare to imagine him tackling the hot-button issues of his era like a Jacobean David Mamet.

But Bill Cain's "Equivocation" at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum takes a scholarly theory -- that "Macbeth" is a coded chronicle of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 -- and runs with it all over the stage in a joyful meta-theatrical romp.

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The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by a few Catholics to blow up Parliament with the Protestant King James I inside. (Guy Fawkes Day celebrates the failure of this scheme.) Alternatively, it was a lie invented by Protestants to discredit Catholics.

In "Equivocation," malignant Secretary of State Robert Cecil (Alan Blumenfeld, relishing every sneer) commissions Will "Shagspeare" (a contemporary spelling) to write a play telling the official version.

Initially, the middle-age Shag, played by Ted Barton with amusing dyspepsia, resists: "We don't do current events."

But if money and flattery can't tempt him, there's always the threat of hanging. And by the way, Cecil adds: His Majesty likes witches.

Shag has enough problems. He's struggling with his own new play, which one of his actors dismisses as "an experimental drama about an insane king running around in his underwear." (All of the characters are cranky, pithy theater critics in a modern vein; their acerbic summaries of Shakespeare's plots are among the script's many anachronistic delights).

The company's aging star, Richard (Franc Ross), resents handsome upstart Sharpe (Dane Oliver, who seems to have springs for muscles). And Shag has a strained rapport with his lonely, perceptive daughter, Judith (Taylor Jackson Ross), the twin of his beloved dead son.

Still, Shag gets interested in finding the "truth" about the Gunpowder Plot. His research takes him into the Tower of London, his encounters there morphing seamlessly into rehearsal scenes. All the actors besides Shag and Judith take on numerous roles, requiring inventive staging: I could have sworn there was more than one Paul Turbiak. At one point, Oliver plays both an actor onstage and the loutish, Scottish King James in the audience, switching parts mid-sentence; it's a tour de force.

The vibrant production is directed by Mike Peebler, with period costumes by Ben Kahookele. If I had one quibble, it's that the funny bits — broad characterizations and breezy, sardonic quips — play better than occasionally overwrought emotional moments. But even so, it's a fun, lively show that keeps the audience on the edge of Theatricum's notoriously hard seats. (Take a cushion.)

"Equivocation." Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. 8 p.m. Fridays (and one Saturday, Oct. 4). Ends Oct. 4. $25-$37. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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