'Tis Pity She's A Whore; American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse; Through June 16

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For some of us it is the twisted tales that are most meaningful. They prove, by revealing the darker side of humanity to be cautionary, designed to inspire us to be better people. John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is one of those stories—a Romeo and Juliet gone bad, ripe with dastardly murder plots, jealousy, incest, and betrayals.

In his program notes on the play, director Jim Warren writes, “This play starts like it could be Romeo and Juliet, except for the fact that this star-crossed couple is a brother and his sister. Giovanni pursues Annabella like Romeo goes after Juliet; she later repents, but it’s a big hot mess from beginning to end.” Plotwise he is right. By the end the set is littered with dead bodies and the audience is left to contemplate inequalities between the sexes, the classes, and the institutions that foster them. Directorially the play is fairly tight—until the end—where it kind of falls apart with overacting and some awkward blocking.

The basic plot goes something like this: Boy is obsessed with girl who happens to be his sister. Boy gets girl. Girl gets pregnant and marries someone else—quickly. Husband discovers girl’s ruined condition and goes postal with his desire to punish her and her lover while other characters drop like flies via various modes of treachery. Patrick Earl (Giovanni the brother), Denice Mahler (Annabella the sister) and Jake Mahler (Soranzo) play the triangle of lovers. Warren throws a little inside joke in his casting here as the two Mahlers are married in real life thus making the more uncomfortable scenes between them onstage a little more… um, uncomfortable. To add to the discomfort, Ford’s dialogue between the two incestuous lovers is so beautiful and evocative of the intensity and tenderness of forbidden love, the audience is at once sympathetic and repelled.

Earl and Ms. Mahler do a great job with the love scenes but both fall into the pit of overacting hell at other points in the show. Earl is (laughingly) alive as he sits at a table with multiple stab wounds and spouts lines in a normal voice. Ms. Mahler gets way too animated whenever anything bad happens to Annabella, from vomiting to dying. Stephanie Holiday Earl (yes, she is married to Patrick) is a sexy, angry, spurned seductress as Hippolita, but also goes overboard in her death scene. These are more director mistakes than actors’ faults. Eugene Douglas is brilliant as the calm, conniving servant Vasques, who literally gets away with murder. He delivers one of the best lines, “I rejoice that a Spaniard outwitted an Italian
in this revenge!” summarizing the shallow motivations of the characters in the play.

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is not all dark and tragic, however. There must be some light in order for darkness to be most poignant, and as Warren puts it, “There’s some darn funny
stuff in this play too.” That funny stuff comes in the form of Rick Blunt’s Bergetto, a foppish fool played with such honesty and comedic perfection it is more than sad symbolism when
he dies at the end of the first act, sucking all that is sweet and charming out of this play.
The message of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is that anger and revenge perpetuate like ripples in a pool resulting in unnecessary destruction. It is as rough a way to learn that lesson as watching Pulp Fiction is to learn Bible verses. Well worth it for those of us who like the dark.

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