Review: `’Tis Pity She’s a Whore’

Jun 12

Opened June 11, 2008 at American Conservatory Theater

 

Michael Hayden and René Augesen play a brother and sister with more than familial affection for one another in ACT’s production of ”Tis Pity She’s a Whore.‘ Photos by Kevin Berne

ACT slices into harsh, bloody revenge play
«« ½ ‘Tis pity it’s so harsh

You don’t want to be a woman in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the 1630 barnstormer in which women are murdered and tortured – some by their own mischief, some at the hand of their supposed loved one, some just for gossiping – or at the very least, sent into a nunnery after seeing your lover killed in your arms. As one man says: “‘Tis as common to err in frailty as to be a woman.” And don’t forget that snappy title, which also happens to be the last line of the play. Substitute the word “woman” for “whore” and you get the idea.

The men don’t fair much better—they’re mean, violent, corrupt, greedy and stupid — but at least they have all the money and power.

Welcome to the world of the Jacobean revenge drama. Nobody has much fun, including the audience.

You can feel American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff trying to locate the beauty and the power in her production of ‘Tis Pity. The vast stage of the ACT theater has been transformed, by set designer Walt Spangler, into a vast array of staircases and platforms adorned with strings of glass beads and candles (or what appear to be candles in Robert Wierzel’s colorful lighting design). The overall effect is both ornate and rough. In fact, the stage looks a little like an Urban Outfitters.

The most interesting feature of the stage contains one of the most interesting elements of the production. Housed in what looks like a giant, upside down organ is cellist/vocalist Bonfire Madigan Shive, who provides live accompaniment for the nearly three-hour production, and it’s a mercy she’s there to lend beauty (and a little screaming outrage) and passion and tenderness to an otherwise unforgiving evening. It’s no wonder she’s costumed (by Candice Donnelly) to appear somewhat angel-like. She confers a certain grace to something truly ugly.

You can’t help but feel the playwright attempting to shock his audience by having a brother (Michael Hayden) and sister (René Augesen) declaring their love for each other, smooching up a storm in their sinful sheets and then suffering the consequences of their forbidden union. To Ford’s credit (and to Hayden and Augesen’s), we do have some sympathy for these lovers, though their quick acceptance of incest as the best possible route seems haphazard to be sure. The brother ends up like a moody, swoony riff on Hamlet, only his Ophelia happens to be a blood relative.

With the audience rooting for the infidels, it’s hard to muster up much concern for the passel of rivals (Jud Williford, Michael Earle Fajardo, Anthony Fusco, Warren David Keith) all vying in one way or another for the sister’s hand in marriage. There are rousing swordfights (fight directed by Dave Maier) and any number of subplots involving betrayal and revenge, but it all feels like it’s heading in one direction and one direction only: the bloody denouement quickly followed by a sharp poke at the Catholic church. An early line of foreboding in the play warns: “Death waits on thy lust,” and boy does it ever.

Death, mayhem, blood and gore – it’s all there. Even the silliest character (an imbecilic fop played by Gregory Wallace) meets an untimely end, and so does the bawdy nurse (Sharon Lockwood), who lustily encouraged the brother-sister union because a brother is just another man, after all. And what does it all amount to? At the end of Hamlet, though the stage is strewn with bodies, you feel something profound has happened that speaks to the core of man’s weakness. At the end of ‘Tis Pity, you’re reminded a) not to sleep with your relatives and b) to be grateful that button-pushing Jacobean revenge dramas are in short supply.

Or maybe they’ve just changed form and are now more readily available in video game versions. That seems about right.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore continues through July 6 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. Also visit www.tispity.org.

6 comments

  1. Melissa /

    I wish you’d seen ours!

  2. Clarie Hollenbeck /

    This is just a small comment about a mistake that everyone seems to be making, including Carey Perloff in her comments in the playbill. “Tis pity she’s a whore” is not a Jacobean play; it was published sometime between 1530 and 1533, approximately 5 – 8 years after the end of the Jacobean period (1603 – 1625), and well into the Caroline period (1625 – 1642). The notion that it was written earlier, perhaps, during the Jacobean period is pure speculation, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, needs to be attributed to the Caroline period.

    As to your review, I liked your review very much, and was equally unimpressed with the overall performance, particularly with character development. The influences of John Webster seem strongly evident in this play. I also think that it might have been a little too ambitious to perform within the abilities and training (in aggregate) of the core artist at ACT. Finally, I think your comparison to the end of Hamlet missed the mark just a little, and think that it might have been better compared to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

  3. Saw the performance Saturday matinee. I will have to say this is one of Carrie Perloff’s best directed production. My only comment was that Michael Hayden was not projecting during the first scene that matinee. We were in 4th row and when he was on the left side of stage and I had no idea what he was saying. The voice became clearer in the next scenes.

    It was interesting to see Michael Hayden in this role since we saw him in the revival of “Carousel” in the UK and in New York. He was a wonderful Billy Bigalow in the musical. Saw him later in “Far East” at Lincoln Center. I’ve never considered him a great actor but a competent performer. The set was amazing.

    I have not been a big fan of Gregory Wallace but in this production I was glad for the campy acting since it was a nice break from the gloomy production. Oh James Carpenter in that outfit look like it was out of “Merchant of Venice”.

  4. Oh you are right Claire the Wikipedia Encycopedia says it is a Caroline era tragedy. Robert Hurwitt thought a prop (heart) got mislaid on opening night but there was no prop in the brother’s hand when we saw it. It was just bloody.

  5. Milissa: I bet you are talking about “The Musical of Musicals”. It was fantastic.

    Funny thing after we saw the matinee of “Tis a Pity” we went the exact opposite that night and saw Katya Smirnoff:Skyy at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. This kid is only 28 years old and he is a great drag artist. He sounds like the Gabor Sisters all rolled in together and his mezzo soprano voice is better then Francis Foster Jenkins.

  6. Heh, actually Melissa’s more likely talking about Impact Theatre’s own production of ‘Tis Pity.

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