Monday, January 18, 2010

Wisey Wm. Sh. Best Writer: Bill Cain, Equivocation

Well, one way to deal with problem of choosing 'best writer' when you see half a dozen or more plays a year by William Shakespeare is to name the award after him and take him out of the running. Thus handicapped, the slate is:

Michael Hollinger, Opus
Bill Cain, Equivocation
George Brant, Elephant's Graveyard
Erin Stewart, Mr. Jibbers
Darian Lindle, Great Expectations!
Deborah Zoe Laufer, End Days
Shel Silverstein, The Best Daddy
Vincent Delaney, Six Months In

We love 10-minute, one-act plays; they're like chewy salty-sweet dark chocolate caramels. Death/Sex at Balagan and 14/48: The World's Quickest Theater Festival serve up gobs of one-act goodness. Especially memorable 14/48 plays in 2009 were Mr. Jibbers by Erin Stewart—disturbing and hilarious; Great Expectations! by Darian Lindle, a tale of trust and betrayal in the high-stakes world of show choir; and Six Months In, because it still takes good writing to make a play with six pregnant men in it that funny. A Death/Sex highlight was The Best Daddy by Shel Silverstein, a rather sick little specimen from a collection of short sketches first produced as An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein.

Among full-length plays, we especially admired the writing of George Brant for Elephant's Graveyard, at Balagan Theatre. Brant bases his play on a historical incident, which makes it all the more horrifying, but takes artistic license to turn it into an all-too timely and relevant study of American "us and them" tendencies. It's not preachy; it aims for the solar plexus, and every punch lands.

Opus, seen at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, is a beautifully written piece of possession and jealousy, love and friendship, and work and creativity—much of which goes wrong, even as the ensemble is achieving professional triumphs. I found the unsatisfying, anything but neat-and-tidy ending very....satisfying.

I was just sure we had our winner all the way back in early Feburary when we saw End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer at Seattle Public Theater. This is a very smart play, great Comedy with a capital C. As I wrote in my original Weisenheimer review, "It's got it all: two couples who aren't together but should be, an interloper, dislocation, disguised identities, conflict between generations/ societies, and a reaffirming happy ending. And it's funny as hell."

So imagine my surprise when we saw another play this year good enough to edge it out for best writer: Bill Cain's majestic Equivocation. We saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production at OSF and again at the Seattle Rep; the Jenny Graham OSF photo above shows Anthony Heald as Shagspeare and Jonathan Haugen as William Cecil.

Cain's project with Equivocation is very, very big. All the heavy themes of work, religion, citizenship, friendship, and family; integrity, truth, and deception; and the meaning-of-it-all. And to make it good and challenging, it's in a historical setting with only the most famous playwright in the world for a protagonist. The play is intricate without ever getting bogged down; clever without ever being trite; ambitious without ever getting lost. It carries you through a range of emotions pleasant and difficult until all of the characters—and the audience—arrive at the end with compassion. I think this is an important and enjoyable play—and that's not an easy combination to strike.

Don't count End Days out just yet. It's playing at the Harlequin in Olympia, WA. And we've got tickets. Which means by Wisey rules, we can nominate it again for 2010! It's early in the year, but I wouldn't be surprised if it makes the list again. Think of it like the Hall of Fame. It can take a few ballots to get in. Get your tickets, it's playing January 29 through February 20.

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