Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors and director Bill Rauch fashion a thoughtful, provocative and entertaining speculation about Shakespeare — the man and the playwright — in "Equivocation," now playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

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Other than his magnificent plays, William Shakespeare left few traces of his life behind for posterity.

That’s frustrated many theater-lovers. But it’s given modern dramatists a free pass to imagine who the Bard of Avon was as a man, and how he navigated the turbulent political, religious and artistic waters of his time.

In the fascinating play “Equivocation,” Bill Cain fashions one of the most thoughtful, provocative and entertaining speculations about Shakespeare in relation to his era — and ours.

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The play debuted at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last April. It comes to Seattle Repertory Theatre with the original OSF cast and director (OSF honcho Bill Rauch).

The script, staging and acting have gained clarity and texture since the OSF run, making me more aware and appreciative of Cain’s rare achievement.

The title spins on the multiple meanings of “equivocation,” as: 1) an evasive, ambiguous verbal tactic; 2) a Catholic doctrine allowing priests to lie during interrogation, under threat of death; and 3) a term often used in “Macbeth.”

In Cain’s drama, Will “Shagspeare” is no lionized theater god or hero, but a conflicted working scribe, caught up in his own religious, political, artistic equivocations. In Anthony Heald’s restrained, anchoring portrayal, Will is stressed on all fronts. Most worrisome are the dire demands of Sir Robert Cecil, ruthless top adviser to King James I.

The play has Cecil ordering Shag to pen a work favorable to the throne, about the recent 1605 Gunpowder Plot by Catholic rebels, to overthrow King James by blowing up Parliament House.

Under great duress, Shag takes the commission, and the final product is “Macbeth” (which has veiled allusions to the rebellion).

Cain has stuffed in enough scenes, themes, plot devices and excerpts of “King Lear” and other texts to stock several scripts. And enough snappy verbal comedy to satisfy a Shaw or a Stoppard.

On a sparely dressed set, Rauch moves his six actors (some doubling on roles) with ease and vigor between court, theater and dungeon.

At court, Will is privy to the wily maneuvers of Cecil (Jonathan Haugen) — whose resemblance to ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, particularly in their views of terrorism and torture, is unmissable.

In the theater Will is one member of an artistic collective, whose works are critiqued and argued over by such colleagues as Richard Burbage (Richard Elmore) Richard Sharpe (John Tufts) and Robert Armin (Gregory Linington). The sharp jests and rebukes are humorous (if too close at times to modern gross-out banter).

But it is in the prison scenes that Cain’s most searching, humane concerns are aired. Shag wrestles with his obligation to the truth, as he hunts for it in clandestine meetings with convicted Gunpowder plotters Henry Garnet (Elmore), the priest author of the Equivocation Doctrine; and young Thomas Winter (John Tufts).

But the truth is complex, elusive, dangerous. And Will must balance survival with many “truths.”

The historical accuracy of “Equivocation” can be picked apart, as can the play’s image of a fearful, torn Shakespeare. But this is compelling fiction in its rich marbling of literary lore and a timely, astute portrayal of religious bigotry, political exploitation of terrorism and other burning matters.

An erudite historical drama demanding three hours of your time, and many of your brain cells, is a rare property in the American theater these days. And in this case, a welcome one.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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