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‘Equivocation’ smart and witty and oh, so timely

Arturo Sori(from left) Marc Grapey Matt Kahler star Victory Gardens’ producti“Equivocation.”

Arturo Soria (from left), Marc Grapey and Matt Kahler star in Victory Gardens’ production of “Equivocation.”

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Through Oct. 14

Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets, $20-$50

(773) 871-3000;

Updated: September 25, 2012 6:14PM

First, a concise definition of “Equivocation,” which is the title of Bill Cain’s enormously smart, witty, multilayered, political-personal, centuries-crossing, theater-teasing, Shakespeare-embracing play, now in a snap, crackle and pop production at Victory Gardens Theater.

The word itself means “the use of ambiguous or unclear expressions, usually to avoid commitment, or to mislead.” In other words, it is a very crucial concept to understand, particularly if, like “Shagspeare” (one of the many variations of spelling for that fabled Bard of Avon’s name), you are a high-profile playwright working in a kingdom rife with religious dissension, internal political rivalries, conspiracies and terrorist plots. It is a society, it is worth noting, that supports both a thriving legitimate theater, and the very real, grand guignol tradition of torture, hangings, beheadings and disembowelings. So as Cain winkingly suggests, having equivocation skills at the ready could be invaluable for survival.

And so we get to the story at hand, which just happens to be set in Shakespeare’s theater even if it zooms along with all the hip humor of a writers’ meeting for Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

It is 1605, and Shagspeare (Marc Grapey, the pitch-perfect master of drollery) is the chief writer in a cooperative of actors that includes Richard (the volatile Bruce A. Young), Armin (a wonderfully natural Matt Kahler), and Sharpe (Arturo Soria, remarkable in his instantaneous metamorphoses), who is the youngest, perhaps most gifted and certainly most sexually shape-shifting member of the troupe. The trouble begins when Shagspeare is commissioned — by way of King James’ sly, duplicitous emissary, Sir Robert Cecil (a neatly smarmy Mark Montgomery) — to write a play bearing the title “The Gunpowder Plot.” The powers-that-be clearly want it to serve as the official version of the Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up Parliament and kill the royal family. For many reasons, particularly his unwillingness to serve as royal propagandist, he feels trapped by the assignment.

Through a wildly complex yet impressively accessible whirl of twists and counter-twists, Cain gives us a whiplash-inducing blend of real life and “theatrical scenes,” plus a look at the birth of “Macbeth.” Shagspeare turns out to be a master equivocator.

Cain also homes in on the troubled relationship between Shagspeare and his bristlingly smart and angry daughter, Judith (Minita Gandhi, beautifully understated yet strong), twin to the playwright’s son, who died, and who he still mourns.

Director Sean Graney, in peak form, deftly moves his supremely brainy and talented cast in the play’s speed-of-light mood shifts, with William Boles’ handsome set adding to the atmosphere. Everyone here is operating in breathtaking overdrive in a play that also pays homage to the theater.

Of course the terrorist conspiracy, the torture, the feminist undertow, the multi-cultural acting troupe, the mountain of ambivalence and ambiguity, all suggest a contemporary scenario as well. Time moves on, Cain tells us, and the dynasties of power brokers keep appearing and reappearing in different guises. But while some claim that history is ultimately written by the victors, it might just be the playwrights who have the last (best) word.

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