What a title! Once hear the words ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, for John Ford’s little-performed, shocking Jacobean (1629-1633) tragedy, they stick with you forever, regardless of what you know of the action on stage. The sentence is also the last line of the play, which is the current Syracuse University Drama Department production.
Only the “she” of the title, Annabella, is not what we would understand to be a whore, such as a streetwalker or call girl. Instead, she is an Italian noblewoman who suffers the misfortune of falling in love with the wrong man: her brother. Not just platonic affection, but full, carnal love, acted out on stage. Incest is such a plangent taboo, we are often reluctant to speak of it even today. Only trouble will follow it, even more with a cover-up. And so the blood flows, carrying body parts with it.
We’ll spare you some of the more grisly details, except to say that they keep pace with contemporary gorefests. Movie director Peter Greenaway reports drawing on Pity for his 1989 art house horror show, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Too many plot hints grow into spoilers, diminishing the director’s and actors’ efforts, and, anyway, that’s not what Pity is ultimately about. The shocking or gross-out moments have their effect because they are the culmination of deep currents of family and political tension.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore shares with Greenaway’s movie another prominent theme: the continual abuse and mistreatment of women. If the show were not directed by a woman, new SU Drama assistant professor Celia Madeoy, it could have attracted protests by feminist groups. What you see is not titillating or exploitive, however, but instead cautionary. You’d never want to try any of these things at home.
A debut production from an assistant professor of drama means you can expect to have your eyes and ears knocked out, and that’s what happens. Madeoy had wide experience as an actress before coming here, including award-winning years at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., and the role of Aunt Ev in Syracuse Stage’s The Miracle Worker (March 2011). The first thing she accomplishes is in getting college students to articulate blank verse as if it were American speech. Ford’s verses are not in a league with Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson, but he offers many rewards. Much of the dialogue is short and punchy, almost an anticipation of David Mamet.
Ford sets the action in Parma, a city he probably knew little of. Madeoy prefers the Italy of the 1950s, and she shares with us the models she has in mind. One is Ruth Orkin’s iconic Life magazine photograph “American Girl in Italy” (1951), in which a slender, attractive woman struggles to maintain her dignity while striding by some leering loafers on the sidewalk (helpfully reproduced in the program). The second is Federico Fellini’s autobiographical movie masterpiece I Vitelloni (1953). From these points Madeoy moves the action forward to 1959 to accommodate the appearance of Elvis and the advent of rock’n’roll. There are 19 musical interludes, including jazz and rock and others cheerfully anachronistic, like the “Welsh Hymn.” The cello interludes by Alexa Aron, who also takes a speaking role, are employed to phenomenal effect.
The action begins simply enough and quickly develops into layers of tension. After being away at university, young nobleman Giovanni (Johnny McKeown) admits to his confessor Bonaventura (Jon Parry) that he’s in love with his own sister. The confessor’s answer is abrupt: Repent or be damned. Meanwhile, that sister, Annabella (Rachel Towne), confers with her tutor Putana (Samantha Blinn) about three potential suitors, all of whom she finds distasteful. Putana, though, thinks highly of brother Giovanni. Annabella is thus responsive to Giovanni’s declaration of “hidden flames” for her, and, we can see, she feels the same for him. Portentously, she says, “Love me or kill me, brother,” which are also his sentiments in his love for her. They know what they’re getting into, and love—physical love—comes first.
After stripping off some outer garments, they move upstage behind a translucent screen suspended from an iron-framed balcony, designed by Ellie Engstrom and lighted by Susannah Baron. No one is actually naked, and details are blurred, but there’s no doubt that this is the real deed.
Meanwhile, the prime candidate for Annabella’s hand emerges as Don Soranzo (Andy Striph), a white-suited bully often accompanied by his black-suited servant Vasquez (Corey Steiner), an insinuating descendant of Shakespeare’s Iago who speaks with a Spanish accent. Soranzo comes with some liabilities, namely his already-married mistress, Hippolita (Tayler Beth Anderson), who spits sparks and bullets in all her dialogue. But once Annabella realizes that she is pregnant, Bonaventura advises matrimony before Soranzo can perceive the evidence. The wedding prompts a gala, yet another invitation for costumer Molly Kathryn Weeden to show off her creations, with black and white dominating, as they would have in I Vitelloni if Fellini had gotten around to staging such a scene.
Other details of the story are too circuitous to tell. When seeing ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, be sure to arrive in time to read the program’s two-page plot summary, especially as the cast list is extremely hard to follow. Characters are cited capriciously, alphabetically by actor, instead of in order of appearance or according to cliques or families, as one might expect.
Thus Soranzo’s mistress comes first while her husband Richardetto (Peter Sansbury) is cited 12th. Richardetto was thought dead but returns in disguise with his niece Philotis (Katie Lynch), cited seventh, who is betrothed to Bergetto (Matt Maretz), cited eighth, a disappointed suitor of Annabella. Although she is the title character, and may have the most lines and appears early in the action, Annabella is cited 17th. Theater-goers sitting near your humble reviewer were audibly jealous of my pocket flashlight used to keep track of who was who.
Director Madeoy never runs short of razzle-dazzle, most especially in an awe-inspiring bed trick at the beginning of the second act. But she would never have attempted such a difficult and obscure vehicle if she did not know she had the right troops. As the two leads, the damned Romeo and Juliet, Rachel Towne and Johnny McKeown are heartbreaking victims of love rather than blasphemous sinners. Elsewhere there are many rewards for being a baddie, starting with Corey Steiner as the slimy Vasquez, who speaks the title line, and Andy Striph as his boss Soranzo, who fittingly wears a wife-beater undershirt beneath his snazzy suit.
Tough-talking women also invite juicy performances, notably Samantha Blinn as Annabella’s take-command tutor Putana, and Tayler Beth Anderson, who, confessedly pays a heavy price for being the tough-mouthed bitch Hippolita. Matt Maretz’s Bergetto is a rare and welcome piece of comic relief.
In its day ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore so shocked audiences that it led the Puritans to close the theaters. Under Celia Madeoy’s demon-driven direction, it still packs a wallop.
This production runs through Sunday, Nov. 11. See Times Table for information.