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'Tis Pity She’s a Whore

From Parody to Powerhouse Performance

John Ford’s “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore", is one of the most gruesome morality plays in Jacobean literature. With its turgid sensationalism, brusquely candid treatment of incest, and unrelenting presentation of the bilious clash between church and state, there are obvious congruencies with Shakespeare, but this tragedy foregoes Bard-like suggestiveness for categorical bawdiness.

Until fairly recently, Ford’s play was entirely omitted from the canon and beleaguered with euphemistic titles like “The Brother and Sister". More pedestrian condemnations of “’Tis Pity” were primarily centered on Ford’s romanticization of tumultuous, unbridled lust and his inability to “stress the villainy” of the incestuous love affair at the heart of the tale. But perhaps a more pertinent criticism would not be Ford’s revelry in wantonness but the histrionic, overly affected stagings that have blighted the play for centuries. Thankfully, director Carey Perloff’s voluptuous new rendering of the classic frees it from parody and adds a sexy, lurid backdrop of pre-Restoration romance and intrigue.

Rene Augeson (A.C.T.’s rosy-cheeked principal, who’s as comfy playing ingénue as she is primadonna) stars aside Tony Award-winning Michael Hayden as the titular wench, Annabella, who captures the libidinal interests of her brother Giovanni. Given the title, this is a play full of salacious behavior, wild confessions, and sinuous plot twists. Annabella is duly seduced, bodies and suitors pile up, testosterone-addled retribution vies with an adulterous widow’s pent-up rage at her lover’s betrayal, and the church even gets involved in a convenient pas-de-deux with privileged nobles. While Annabella and Giovanni retreat to their embryonic bower and a few pointless comic high jinks ensue with the buffoonery of Bergetto (Gregory Wallace) and his servant Poggio (Stephen Barker Turner), the setting throbs with peril and impending doom.

The play runs at just under three hours, which means there are plenty of scenes that drag on interminably; however, Walt Spangler’s industrial-decadent set makes up for some of the tedium. Enormous organ pipes hang around the stage, contracting and expanding like a breathing casement around the action, while winding staircases amble up towards the proscenium. The lighting reveals an ornate, bejeweled backdrop that appears to flicker to the rhythm of the characters’ peccadilloes.

Composer and cellist, Bonfire Madigan Shive, presides like a divine Valkyrie over all the bedlam from up in the eaves. With her diaphanous angel wings and the excruciating, discordantly beautiful keen of her cello, she’s a potent, deeply original addition to the play (except for the parts when she brays like a deranged harpie -- in a play like this, it might be better to stand in muted judgment over the scenes rather than draw attention to their obvious kinks).

Augeson and Hayden play their parts from such a deep reserve of poetry and passion that despite the freakishness of such a star-crossed match, our condolences are completely with them. The supporting cast is almost as imposing as the main characters. Steven Anthony Jones as a compassionate friar desperately trying to get the consanguine lovers to repent is effortlessly impressive, while Jack Wilits’ kiss-the-ring performance of the corrupt Cardinal deliciously relishes the play’s vein of cruelty (including the eponymous line uttered at the bloody denouement).

Though her part is miniscule, Susan Gibney delivers a fluid, torrentially vigorous performance as the widow Hippolita, who is scorned by her lover (and Annabella’s husband to be) Soranzo (Michael Earle Fajardo) and sworn to bitter retaliation. Anthony Fusco as Soranzo’s cagey manservant Vasques delivers a capable performance, but the machinations behind his actions are simultaneously horrifying and perplexing.

Every character in the play is somehow tainted by his or her transgressions (most notably, the women, who especially suffer for their attempts to exert any sort of agency). While other plays dealing with similar taboos have tended to poke gentle fun at strumpets and cuckolds (after all, incest is so crazy you may as well make it funny), the play’s few jokey adornments seem forced given all the bloodshed and power plays; by the second act, Perloff rightly decides to doff cheap comic gags altogether and plunge the show into the dark heart of love’s madness. Desensitized as today’s audiences tend to be to violence, it is still difficult to come away undisturbed by the gory conclusion (complete with dagger-skewered heart).

While there is some choppiness in the staging (and perhaps several minor roles that could have been easily done away with without compromising the mood of the story), Perloff’s daring rococo flourishes (including a sumptuous Greco-Roman dance by Hippolyta) make Ford’s play a welcome assuagement from staid renderings of his contemporaries. All the intemperate passion, frank discussion of sexual politics, and harrowing scenes of political and moral opportunism make the show sizzle far more than your typical star-crossed tragedy. Perloff has presented a powerhouse performance that deftly interrogates ingrained social taboos, sexual mores, and the very indeterminacy and expediency of conventional morality. With such a visceral, rapturous rendering, ’tis pity the run is nearly over.

"'Tis Pity She’s a Whore"
Runs through July 6th at A.C.T.
Show, 8pm; 2pm Sun
Tickets: $40