|L-R: Amelia Pedlow and Matthew Amendt in 'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE. Photo by Richard Termine.|
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the bloody, complex tragedy written by John Ford circa 1630, has been staged far less frequently than one might have expected, given that it’s been around for nearly four centuries. Indeed, its current revival by the deservedly acclaimed Red Bull Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street in Times Square marks the play’s first major off Broadway production in twenty years.
And yet there is, in fact, considerable justification for so little attention having been paid to this play over the years: its primary theme – that of an incestuous love affair between two siblings – apparently deeply offended the more tender sensibilities of earlier generations. Moreover, our theatre-going predecessors seem to have been much more disturbed by Ford’s sympathetic treatment of the play’s male protagonist as an admirable, studious man who just happened to be in thrall to emotions beyond his control rather than as a despicable sexual pervert deserving of nothing more than our absolute contempt. In our more “enlightened” age, the play has come to be viewed in a much more understanding light and we are especially fortunate that Red Bull Theater, the only company in North America committed to the exploration and production of the Jacobean plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, sees it that way. If not, we might never have had the pleasure of seeing this truly terrific revival of this long-ignored work.
The setting of the play is Parma. Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) and Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) are star-crossed lovers with a vengeance: they are passionately in love but they are also brother and sister which, contrary to what one might expect, doesn’t necessarily create an insurmountable impediment to the consummation of their mutual desires. Putana (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is Annabella’s tutoress and is not only aware of but comfortable with the illicit relationship. Friar Bonaventura (Christopher Innvar), Giovanni’s tutor and confessor, is also aware of the relationship but, unsurprisingly, as a Catholic priest, he is clearly disapproving. Other than Putana and Friar Bonaventura, however, no one else knows what is going on between the siblings – at least not at the beginning.
Certainly their father, Signor Florio (Philip Goodwin), is unaware of the situation. He very much loves his children and is especially eager to assist his daughter in arranging a marriage to a good man whom she truly loves. To that end, he agrees to allow Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo), who is something of a simpleton and the nephew of his friend Signor Donado (Everett Quinton) to attempt to win his daughter’s hand, albeit to no avail.
Nor is Bergetto Annabella’s only suitor. She is also being wooed by Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan), a nobleman, and by Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman), a Roman gentleman and soldier. Annabella indicates that if she were to marry anyone (which she’d prefer not to do since she is so in love with her brother), it would be Soranzo, although he is, in fact, something of a cad: after carrying on an adulterous affair with Hippolita (Kelley Curran) and leading her to believe that he would marry her if only she were to be widowed, he unceremoniously dumps her when word arrives that her husband Richardetto (Marc Vietor) actually has died while away on a dangerous journey (a journey that Hippolita had encouraged with Soranzo’s approval in the hope that Richardetto’s death would, in fact, ensue). Finally realizing that she must eventually marry someone other than her brother, Annabella reluctantly agrees to marry Soranzo.
Spoiler Alert! As it turns out, Richardetto hadn’t really died at all but, suspecting that his wife might be having an affair, faked his own death and returned to Parma, disguised as a doctor and accompanied by his niece, Philotis (Auden Thornton). Eager for revenge against Soranzo for having slept with his wife, Richardetto convinces Grimaldi to attempt to kill Soranzo, in order to eliminate Grimaldi’s primary competition for Annabella’s hand. Grimaldi tries but fails, accidentally killing Bergetto (who, in the wake of his rejection by Annabella, had become betrothed to Philotis) instead.
Annabella realizes that she is pregnant with Giovanni’s child and, under the circumstances, is convinced by Friar Bonaventura to marry Soranzo forthwith, before her condition becomes apparent. A wedding is planned and all are invited.
Meanwhile, Hippolita also plans vengeance against Soranzo, in her case for his having left her to marry Annabella, prompting her to conspire with Vasques (Derek Smith), Soranzo’s Spanish servant, to poison Soranzo. But, as is often the case, betrayals may beget double-crosses: Vasques remains loyal to Soranzo and poisons Hippolita instead during Annabella’s and Soranzo’s wedding festivities.
Inevitably, Soranzo realizes that Annabella is pregnant and conspires with Vasques to take revenge upon his wife and her as yet unknown lover. Vasques learns the truth from Putana and wreaks vengeance on Putana for her complicity in Annabella’s sin by leading a group of bandits in constraining her and blinding her. Annabella writes a letter to Giovanni in her own blood, alerting him to the danger that awaits him now that Soranzo knows that he is the father of her unborn child but Giovanni, who is too hubristic to believe that any harm might ever befall him, rejects advice to decline Sorenzo’s invitation to his wedding feast and attends anyway.
At the feast, all hell breaks loose. Giovanni visits Annabella in her room, kisses her, then stabs her to death. He returns to the feast, wielding Annabella’s heart skewered on his dagger, and informs everyone present of their incestuous relationship – at which point Florio dies immediately from shock. Soranzo attacks Giovanni but Giovanni gains the upper hand and stabs Soranzo, killing him. Vasques joins the fray, wounding Giovanni and ordering his bandits to kill him.
By the time the play ends, the stage is covered in bodies and blood. Poggio (Ryan Farley), Bergetto’s servant, has survived, and so has Richardetto (who has revealed his true identity), and Donado, and Friar Bonaventura (who skipped town after delivering Annabella’s bloody letter to Giovanni in order to avoid any further involvement in the situation). Grimaldi, Vasques and Philotis have survived too, but they have also all left town: Grimaldi has been sent back to Rome by The Cardinal (Rocco Sisto); Vasques has been exiled to Spain (also by The Cardinal; and Philotis has been sent to a convent by her uncle, Richardetto. And they, together with The Cardinal, are the lucky ones.
All of the others are dead or soon to be. Giovanni, Soranzo and Bergetto have all been stabbed to death. Florio has died of shock. Hippolita has been poisoned. Putana is to be burned at the stake, also on orders of The Cardinal, even after having been blinded. And Annabella, as if to add insult to injury, has not only been stabbed to death but literally “disheartened.”
The play has everything one might expect from a Jacobean drama, ranging from impediments to true love to murder most foul (including stabbing, poisoning, and burning at the stake); from betrayals and double-crosses to disguises and false identities; from adultery and cuckoldry to religious hypocrisy and ethnic bigotry. Not to mention incest and nudity, to boot. This play has it all and this revival plays it for all its worth. It is truly a wonderful production that should not be missed.