by Samuel L. Leiter
In 1604, Hamlet railed against his mother for marrying his uncle, condemning her for speeding “with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” Well, you might argue, there’s no blood relationship here so—technical definitions aside—maybe he’s getting his tights in a knot over a relative triviality. Not so, however, in John Ford’s once highly controversial ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (c. 1630-1633), written around a quarter century later, during the Caroline era (a program note calls it Jacobean), where a young brother and sister, Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) and Annabella (Amelia Pedlow), have no qualms about thrashing about dexterously in those incestuous sheets. In fact, in Jesse Berger’s competent, if uninspired, direction of this rarely produced play for Red Bull Theater, the lusty siblings even get to romp in the birthday suits they wore in the mother’s womb they shared.
Unless you recall that the play’s Cheek by Jowl revival at BAM in 2012 was centered around a bed in which not only the brother and sister but various others got it on, this sex scene might seem at least a mildly innovative touch in an otherwise stodgy staging. There’s a degree of originality in Sara Jane Tosetti’s peculiar mishmash of costume periods and styles, but only some of them click, like the iniquitous Vasques’s (Derek Smith, slyness personified) punkish gear, while others don’t, like the bizarre getup with high heels and short, fur jacket worn by the foppish fool, Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo, unfunny).
The text seems mostly in place, save for brief moments where the functions of local law enforcement officers or banditti have been taken by the main characters, or when only one actor (Kelley Curran) performs the masque (like having a D.J. instead of a band). David M. Barber’s set reflects early 17th century practices: wood-paneled walls, an inner-below through which a bed can be thrust, an overhead gallery, and four entryways. Peter West’s lighting, apart from some unwelcome facial shadows, has some nice effects.
’Tis Pity, set in Parma, Italy, has subplots but they all coalesce around the main one of Giovanni and Annabella’s guiltless passion, which culminates in her pregnancy. Involved in the whirl of corruption are Giovanni’s confessor, the horrified Friar Bonaventura (Christopher Innvar); three rivals for the disinterested Annabella’s hand, Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman, in a Mohawk), Soranzo (Clifton Duncan, impressively six-packed), and Bergetto; the siblings’ father, Florio (Philip Goodwin), anxious that his daughter make a suitable match; Annabella’s bawdy tutoress, Putana (Franchella Steward Dorn, nicely earthy), who encourages the incestuous affair; Hippolita (Ms. Curran, looking like Snow White’s wicked stepmother), out to avenge herself on Soranzo, the lover who betrayed her; Hippolita’s supposedly deceased husband, Richardetto (Mark Vietor), disguised as a doctor (but looking more like a British vicar) so he can ferret out her adulterous behavior; Vasques, Soranzo’s scheming Spanish servant; Philotis (Auden Thornton), Richardetto’s callow niece, in love with the asinine Bergetto, bane of his wealthy uncle, Donado (Everett Quinton); and the red-robed Cardinal (Rocco Sisto), the pope’s man in Parma, who speaks the tag line that gives the play its name.
Aside from several fuzzy passages, the richly poetic language is more accessible to a first-time listener than most of Shakespeare’s plays. Like others of its time, Ford’s melodrama presents a brimming cauldron of love, lust, betrayal, cunning, jealousy, and evil, with a sadists’ holiday of blood, guts, and gore for dessert. There’s a full menu of stabbings, Gloucester-like double eye gougings, death by poisoned sword and poisoned drink, and heart attacks, with the Grand Guignol pièce de resistance when the blood-smeared Giovanni displays Annabella’s heart stuck on his dagger like a cherry-red ice cream pop.
Amendt and Pedlow make an attractive pair of familial sex partners, and receive satisfactory support from several supporting players, notably Dorn, Smith, and Curran, but no one rises to the next level. Seeking an educational experience in learning about this little-known classic? The Red Bull production will help. Seeking a distinctive aesthetic experience? Not so much.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Red Bull Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Through May 16
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).