Review: `’Tis Pity She’s a Whore’

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 Also visit

Making theater music

American Conservatory Theater’s final Koret Visiting Artist Series event is a good one — and it’s free!

On Sunday, May 18 at 5 p.m. on the ACT stage, the topic is “Notes on Music and Theater.” And the panelists are 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang, Grammy Award-winner Tracy Chapman and local alt-rock cellist Bonfire Madigan Shive(above).

Lang provided scores for several ACT productions including The Tempest, Hecuba and The Difficulty in Crossing the Field. He won the Pulitzer last month for The Little Match Girl Passion (based on the children’s story).

Chapman, best known for her distinctive recordings of “Fast Car” and “Baby Can I Hold You,” recently made her first foray into writing for the theater when she provided a score (and recorded a new song) for ACT’s Blood Knot.

Shive is currently composing the score for ACT’s next show, Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Shive will perform the score live at each performance.

Artistic director Carey Perloff will moderate. The event is free but seats can be reserved by e-mailing For information visit

Here’s a flashback of Chapman performing her beautiful ballad “Baby Can I Hold You.”