Writers of Jacobean tragedies are individuals with deeply sick imaginations. And I mean that as a compliment. I think. Prime example: John Ford, whose play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is the first full production by the new Classical Actors Ensemble. They staged all of Shakespeare’s sonnets earlier this year, but Whore is the first play they’re mounting—if you’ll pardon the expression.
The story goes something like this. Annabella (Sigrid Sutter) has no fewer than four suitors vying for her heart and her hand in marriage. One of them is a soldier, Grimaldi (Andrew Chambers), whose uniform is more a costume he puts on than something he earned through acts of valor. Annabella’s father Florio (Jeff Huset) favors Soranzo (Brandon Ewald) as a match for his daughter. Donado (Ari Hoptman) is pushing his dimwitted but affable nephew Bergetto (Mark Knutson) to be Annabella’s husband. And to top it off, Annabella’s own brother Giovanni (Erik Hoover) is in love with her—really in love with her, more than a normal brother should be. Guess who she picks? (Honestly, I can’t blame her. If my brother looked like Erik Hoover, I’d be tempted too.)
|’tis pity she’s a whore, presented through november 20 at walker community church. for tickets ($14-$24) and information, see classicalactorsensemble.org.|
Annabella’s instincts aren’t all that off where Soranzo is concerned. Soranzo wooed a married woman named Hippolita (Kate Greenwood Gunther), who then encouraged her husband Richardetto (Joel Raney) to head out on a dangerous assignment from which he conveniently didn’t return. Once Hippolita was available, however, Soranzo was no longer interested. Now the fallen woman Hippolita is plotting her revenge against Soranzo. But she’s not alone.
Her husband Richardetto didn’t die after all. He returns in “disguise,” sporting (deliberately, I believe) the world’s least convincing wig. But just like Clark Kent and those eyeglasses, everyone plays along, never knowing the wronged husband is right under their noses the whole time, shocked when he finally reveals his true identity (it’s kind of hilarious, in the middle of the bloodbath that ends the play). Richardetto, aided by his naughty niece Philotis (Jen Rand)—the only woman who makes it out of this play alive—tries a number of tactics to take down Soranzo, all of which backfire, some of them spectacularly.
In addition to Hippolita and Richardetto, romantic rival Grimaldi is also out to get Soranzo. Given the number of people gunning for him, it’s a miracle Soranzo manages to make it to the final scene alive. But (almost) everyone in this play is destined to have their luck run out at some point. Soranzo’s saving grace is his rabidly devoted servant Vasques (Zach Morgan), who takes up arms against Grimaldi, beds Hippolita, tricks Annabella’s loyal servant Putana (Koya Frye) into revealing damning information, wangles absolution out of the local Cardinal (Peter Aitchison), and proves to be the young lover Giovanni’s most dangerous adversary. (Actor Zach Morgan must be having a ball with this part. He also must be completely exhausted.)
It’s a testament to director Joseph Papke and his tireless ensemble (of 17!) that this deliciously convoluted plot is so easy to follow. I debated whether I should do a little homework before seeing this and at least read a synopsis of the plot or something, but now I’m glad I didn’t. I got the pleasure of following along and sorting out everybody’s conflicting motives and desires as the play barreled forward toward its bloody conclusion. (Fear not, I’ve spoiled none of the really over-the-top surprises the evening has in store for you. Yes, there are more.) Shakespeare’s storytelling holds up well hundreds of years later. Some of the other plays from the 16th and 17th century, not so much. Ford’s script for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, however, has aged gracefully and still works as a powerful revenge tragedy.
To be honest, I probably shouldn’t have enjoyed this play quite as much as I did. There was a lot of conflicted laughter in the crowd the night I attended, and I was right there with them. While the women characters are strong and extremely entertaining to watch in action, they also get beaten down, literally and figuratively, until there’s nothing left of them. If you enjoy watching a pregnant woman get slapped around, for instance, this play is your ticket. This is 1633, of course. During this time period, most women’s only option for advancement and a good life was to marry well. There was no such thing as a successful career for a woman, and a woman could not be left alone in the world, for that would just be pathetic. Women were below second-class citizen status. Only servants ranked lower, and the line between servant and woman was a fuzzy one in those days. The men in the play are constantly making excuses for the women in the most condescending manner. “Of course you’re a weak, stupid, lying slut. You’re a woman. How could I hold your true nature against you?” This isn’t just the subtext. They say things like that out loud.
The production makes inventive use of the Walker Church space. The stage area is wide open, with very little used in the way of props or furniture, which makes it perfect for all the swordplay and other fighting going on (courtesy of fight choreographer David P. Scheider). The balcony level of the audience is also used frequently on both sides as a playing space, as are the aisles throughout the house, with actors running in and out amongst the audience. They also strive to use original staging practices—meaning that in addition to the open staging, they go with with universal lighting. The lights are just up in the full church sanctuary. The audience and the actors all exist in the same light, there is no separation. For a stretch of night scenes, the lights in the house are taken out, and only ambient light or the liberal use of candles allow us to see the action.
Additionally, there is live music. Instead of standard act breaks and intermission, members of the acting company play instruments and sing a song or two. The audience is encouraged to stand up and stretch, dance and sing along, hit the restroom or buy some concessions right there in the house. For the big break halfway through the evening, we get several songs to tide us over. Since the songs back then would have been popular songs of the day, the ensemble puts an acoustic twist on today’s pop music—sometimes a little renaissance flavor, other times a multi-part harmony reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas. Everything from Beyoncé and Amy Winehouse to Elliott Smith and Sting, each song still cleverly chosen to tie in to the characters and themes of the evening. It all makes for a very engaging actor/audience bond, which helps when the play veers into politically incorrect territory.
It’s a good thing the play is staged in a Protestant rather than Catholic house of worship, because the Church as an institution doesn’t come off very well. The cardinal provides sanctuary to one murderer, a light sentence of (welcome) banishment to another, and makes sure that all the worldly possessions of the various corpses who litter the stage at the end of the play are confiscated in the name of the church. Even Giovanni’s confidante, Friar Bonaventura (Lief Jurgensen), can’t seem to make a compelling case to Giovanni or Annabella as to why incest would be a really bad idea. The Friar’s Church is great at punishment and scare tactics, not so great at intelligent debate and persuasion with people who have a mind to think for themselves.
The whole cast grabs onto the reins of this thing with both hands and rides it hard and fast to its conclusion. While it almost isn’t fair to single anyone out, in addition to the tireless work of Zach Morgan as Vasques, I have to give a nod to the ladies, particularly Sigrid Sutter as Annabella and Kate Greenwood Gunther as Hippolita. Both women go toe to toe with the men trying to keep them down, and for a time both of them almost beat the odds. They remain resolute and strong to the very end, and thus make the play a lot more palatable than a couple of sad, helpless victims might have.
While there are a lot of laughs to be had on all sides throughout the night, a lot of the comedy is doled out by Mark Knutson as the hapless suitor Bergetto, and Jonathan Peterson as his trusty servant Poggio. Knutson’s frat-boy cluelessness and Peterson’s unwavering (dare I say even touching?) devotion to his dimwitted master put smiles on a lot of faces in the audience, mine included. Seriously, though, this story has many moving parts, and everyone involved keeps the thing humming along expertly. They’re all to be commended. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore isn’t easy, but this group of artists make it look like it is. Word of advice from this show to you, though? When you offer your heart to someone, make sure they know they’re not supposed to literally take it. I’m just sayin’.