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March 28, 2012

The Real Shame of "'Tis Pity She's a Whore"

There’s no one who enjoys clever stagecraft more than I do.  But I’m old-school enough to believe that everything that appears on a stage—the acting, the set, any coup de theatre—should serve the play and not just flaunt its own ingenuity.

Alas, the latter seems to be more the case with the current production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which Britain’s Cheek by Jowl company is performing at BAM’s Harvey Theater through the end of this week.

‘Tis Pity is the most famous and controversial of the plays by the 17th century British playwright John Ford, who, had he been born five centuries later, might have ended up a sought-after showrunner for a Showtime series like “The Tudors" or, perhaps more to the point here, “The Borgias.”

For ‘Tis Pity’s plot pivots around the incestuous affair between a young man named Giovanni and his sister Annabella, a beauty who is also coveted by almost every other eligible bachelor in 17th century Parma. Annabella’s subsequent pregnancy by her brother and duplicitous marriage to one of the suitors sets off a series of tragic deaths that ends with a truly horrific act.

Now, that would seem to be enough juicy stuff to hold an audience’s attention in any era but director Declan Donnellan, who is also Cheek by Jowl’s joint artistic director, seems not to trust us—or Ford. 

Donnellan has trimmed the play to under two hours and updated it to the present (judging by the chic modern-dress costumes and ironic set decoration that includes posters from movies like “Gone With the Wind” and TV shows like “True Blood”). 

He’s added the latest theatrical affectations (punk-style dance routines, actors sitting on the side of the stage even when they’re not in scenes). 

And he’s amped up the sex and violence (people are either throwing off their clothes—all of them in several cases—and hopping into bed or drawing knives and goring those around them bloody.)

Clearly, Donnellan wants to make sure that nobody gets bored but all the directorial flair gets in the way of the play. And more’s the pity for that because although the play’s subject of incest (and Ford’s refusal to out-and-out condemn it) is no longer as shocking as it was when the play was written nearly 400 years ago, we don’t get to see 'Tis Pity much.

The play seems never to have been done on Broadway and the last major New York production I could find (thanks to the Lortel Archive’s Internet Off-Broadway Database) was a 1992 Public Theater production in which Val Kilmer and Jean Tripplehorn played the brother-sister lovers.   

And so while I appreciate the desire to put a new spin on an old play, this production made me wish I’d had a chance to see a more straightforward version of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

The cast, headed by Jack Gordon as a Byronic Giovanni and Lydia Wilson, sporting a Lisbeth Salander hair-do as the enthralling Annabella, is clearly talented enough to play it that way and still make it compelling. 

And the play is that and thought-provoking too.  For beneath the melodrama, Ford had some serious—and still resonant—things to say about the power of obsessive love, the hypocrisy of organizedd religion and the way society treats women. There are flickers of all this in the current production but despite all the tinder nothing really catches fire.

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