"Come, Annabella, no more Sister now,
But Love, a name more gracious; do not blush,
Beauty's sweet wonder, but be proud to know
That yielding those hast conquered, and inflamed
A heart, whose tribute is thy brothers life."
If it is not clear from the quotation of a brother's declaration of love to the sister he has just bedded, this play is for mature audiences only. John Ford's 1630 drama, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore has been controversial for all of its performance history for its frank embrace of incest and its depiction of the corruption shown in this Catholic version of Parma, Italy. The play twists the ideals of star-crossed lovers making them the full-blood relations Giovanni and Annabella, the former never shows remorse for his incestuous desires and the latter, who briefly does, is manipulated by the advice of those who surround into continuing the forbidden affair. The subplot involving the attempts to murder one of Annabella's suitors for marriage exposes the true corruption of this tale. For is it truly Annabella who is the whore of the title or is it Italy and the Catholic church that Ford condemns?
Giovanni (Patrick Earl) returns home to Parma from University with his tutor, Friar Bonaventura (Kevin Hauver) to whom he reveals his incestous desire for his sister, Annabella (Denice Mahler). He is counseled to turn to God for repentance. Annabella and her governess, Putana (Bridget Rue) discuss the merits of Annabella's three suitors, the foolish Bergetto (Rick Blunt) , Lord Soranzo (Jake Mahler), and the soldier Grimaldi (Michael Amendola). Giovanni confesses his love to Annabella who reciprocates and they consummate their forbidden love. Giovanni and Annabella's father, Florio (Daniel Abraham Stevens) favors his good friend Donado's (Kevin Hauver) nephew Bergetto, whom Annabella rejects. Another of her suitors, Soranzo left a bitter mistress, Hippolita (Stephanie Holladay Earl), who arranged to have her husband, Richardetto (Ronald Peet) killed, so that Soranzo would marry her. She plots to have Lord Soranzo killed. Richardetto returns to Parma in disguise. Annabella falls illl and learns she is pregnant with Giovanni's child. The Friar counsels Annabella to marry Soranzo to provide a father for her child. Annabella agrees. Things do not end well.
This is very rough material and two patrons did leave the performance I attended at intermission. Director Jim Warren has fully embraced all of the difficulties in the script choosing to stage some moments for maximum shock effect. Erin M. West has designed costumes with a modern flair using a lot of constricting plastic and leather pieces that evoke a sexuality that is bold and daring.
The performances are not uniformly consistent with some of the other outstanding productions in the past season, yet this tight ensemble of eleven actors, who have been touring this play in repertory with two other shows since September 2011 have an ease with Ford's difficult material. It is said that 'Tis Pity She's a Whore shares a palette with William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and there are certain elements of 'Tis Pity that do evoke the comparison. There is the element of forbidden love, here taken to uncomfortable extremes. There is a great deal of comedy in the tale of Annabella's suitors, that ends with the charming comedic character being the first death that turns the story into tragedy.
Rick Blunt wins the audience with his blustering charm as the clown Bergetto and when he finds love with Richardetto's niece, Philotis (Bridget Rue) his shocking death is heartfelt by the audience. Mr. Blunt also is powerful as the Cardinal who gives sanctuary to Bergetto's killer preventing justice. Bridget Rue is not your typical nurse figure as the enabling Putana and has an easy confidence in her encouragement of Annabella's dangerous choices. Denice Mahler garners a great deal of sympathy as Annabella. Her love for her brother comes across as pure and she gains sympathy for her brief remorse. When Annabella is punished for that love by her pregnancy and duplicitous marriage to Soranzo, Ms. Mahler somehow manages to continue to find the sympathetic elements in poor Annabella's fate.
Patrick Earl exudes magnetism as the hot-blooded Giovanni. There is no remorse in his portrayal yet even the audience can see why Annabella cannot resist him sexually even though we see that she should. In the play's horrifying ending Mr. Earl plays the emotions to the extreme. There was not an audible sound from the audience in what could have been an uncomfortable "cough" inducing moment.
Yet, the most compelling performance comes from the play's most moral character. This is Vasques, the Spanish servant of Lord Soranzo. As a true outsider he is able to be the commentator for the audience on these corrupt proceedings. Eugene Douglas ably plays the loyal servant, who uncovers all of the plots involving the attempted murder of his master and the duplicity behind his master's wedding. In the end he is one of the few left standing and his decision to leave Italy behind is echoed by the audience's desire to flee this very uncomfortable story.
John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is being performed as part of the 2011/2012 Almost Blasphemy Tour and the Blackfriar's Playhouse 2012 Spring Season. It is in repertory with William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale through June 16, 2012. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.
Warning: Parental Advisory with spoilers: - This play is really intended for mature audiences. If you prepare a teenager they might be able to handle the material, but it is definitely not for children. Beyond the incest at the center of the story, there are several deaths, a lotof stage blood, Annabella's death is particularly graphic and the final scene features a bloody heart on a dagger.
Check out the rest of Diane's reviews on her blog, The Accidental Thespian.
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Written by Diane Holcomb Wilshere, 4.30.12
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