Story: William Shakespeare – known as Shagspeare to his friends – and his performing troupe are in dire financial straits with their “cooperative venture.” So, it appears to be a blessing when Sir Robert Cecil, prime minister to King James I, approaches Shags with a business proposition: The king wants him to write a play about a “contemporary” subject, the Gunpowder Plot.

In late 1605 a number of Catholics led by Robert Catesby conspired to blow up Parliament during its ceremonial opening. The plot was foiled, however, when Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators, was found in Parliament’s cellar waiting to set off the explosion.

The eccentric King James would like some witches in the story, says Cecil, who revels in Shags’ alarming economic condition, perhaps still angry over how his own father was portrayed by the playwright’s character Polonius in Hamlet.

While Shagspeare bickers with the feisty members of his troupe, he labors at home in his strained relationship with his younger daughter Judith, who knows she can’t compare to her late twin brother for her father’s affection. Still, while his wife dallies with other men and he ignores his elder daughter, Judith faithfully serves the difficult playwright, contributing impressive ideas of her own even while she saves many of his discarded stories.

As Shags researches the Gunpowder Plot, he’s allowed to talk with Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest who was accused of aiding the conspirators, as well as young Tom Wintour, another of the conspirators condemned to execution. When Shagspeare hears their side of the story, he sympathizes with them and further understands his own predicament.

He can write a version King James will like and thus save his own skin. He could write an accurate account about the events and imperil his own life by doing so. Or, he can couch his language in such a way as to ‘equivocate,’ letting others draw their own conclusions.

Shags’ acting cohorts, including Richard Burbage, Sharpe, Armin and Nate, agree to rehearse his new drama, a ‘Scottish play’ about a bloodthirsty general who kills the king in his quest for power. It has prominent roles for witches, which can’t hurt when James views the initial performance.

Will this effort, titled Macbeth, serve to satisfy the king? Not even the Bard knows the answer to that tricky and perilous question.

Highlights: West End Players Guild begins its 109th season with an absorbing production of this provocative, fascinating and richly rewarding play by Jesuit priest Bill Cain.

Other Info: Equivocation offers an intriguing theory about what may or may not have happened in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of late 1605 and the debut of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Macbeth, just months later in 1606.

Cain’s witty, clever and compelling tale debuted in 2009 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s substantial enough to have merited a run on Broadway, but apparently played only at New York City Center briefly in 2010.

Kudos to West End Players Guild for finding this nifty literary gem and mounting its well-appointed version. George Shea’s set design takes a cue from the old Laugh-In TV series with a trio of paneled walls in the back, each with blocks which open to serve as doorways, windows or other viewing sites.

Amy Ruprecht’s lighting distinguishes more poignant moments from broader slapstick with various degrees of illumination, while Susan Kopp’s sound design ranges from soft guitar music in her original compositions to the raucous chatter of an Elizabethan audience.

Tracey Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes nicely fill the bill for 16th century England, from Cecil’s ostentatious wardrobe to Judith’s plain attire. Morgan Maul-Smith’s props include a quill pen and ink well of the times, and Michael Pierce’s fight choreography enlivens sundry scenes.

Director Tom Kopp keeps the show’s pace at a steady clip, ensuring that Cain’s words are clearly enunciated by his shrewd cast for optimal impact. Only in the play’s crucial final scene is there a problem with volume, when Alicen Moser’s last words as Judith are barely discernible, if at all.

Roger Erb lends his powerful, resonating voice to the role of Shagspeare, bringing the requisite gravitas to the part with his timbre as well as a persuasive turn as the beleaguered playwright. Reginald Pierre is excellent in two parts, as the dominant acting force known as Richard as well as the pensive, philosophical Garnet.

Pierce displays the manic nastiness and unpredictability of King James, who cruelly delights in referring to his prime minister as “beagle,” and also captures the raw energy and excitement of the youthful actor Sharpe, who has his eyes on Judith to Shags’ surprise.

John Wolbers, who seems to revel in period parts, is wonderful as the venal and vengeful Cecil, who dutifully conforms to the king’s cruel whims while silently chafing at his treatment even as he lords over Shags and the actors. Mark Conrad suitably portrays the supportive actor Armin as well as Cecil’s blundering barrister brother-in-law Coke.

In the sole female part, Moser brings wisdom and melancholy understanding to the role of Shags’ unappreciated and often ignored daughter Judith, who nonetheless cares for her father in the absence of her philandering mother.

There’s no need to muddy the waters about Equivocation. One can simply and honestly say that it’s an absorbing and affecting theatrical venture which blends historical fact with clever conjecture.

Play: Equivocation

Group: West End Players Guild

Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.

Dates: October 3, 4, 5, 6

Tickets: $20-$25; contact 367-0025 or brownpapertickets.com

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb