More blood and less thunder

theater review

Gory ' 'Tis Pity She's a Whore' keeps audience at an emotional distance

March 22, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

For its bloody production of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, Center Stage considered issuing ponchos to patrons sitting in the first row, and it's easy to understand why.

Here are just a few of the ways folks expire in John Ford's 17th-century equivalent of a splatter film: by poison (two victims); by a heart attack (one) and by stabbing (I lost count). One poor woman gets her eyes gouged out and later is burned at the stake. There's the forcible extraction of a body organ from a living donor.

Despite all the bright-red blood, all the talk of lust and honor and revenge, there's little genuine desire in this staging.

Director Irene Lewis has turned the flame way down. Her staging is lurid but cool. At times, Ford's revenge tragedy about brother-sister incest almost plays as a comedy, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about that.

The script has genuine moments of black humor, especially as viewed from a 21st-century perspective. And though the story line and characters will remind savvy viewers of Romeo and Juliet, Ford isn't as interested as Shakespeare in examining psychological complexities. Those lust-filled siblings, Giovanni and Annabella, express little ambivalence about breaking an age-old taboo. It takes just a few scenes before they climb into the sack.

Since the playwright doesn't provide motivations that would help the actors flesh out their characters, Colby Chambers' and Kristen Sieh's portrayal of the pair as impulsive, pea-brained adolescents makes a certain sense. Their coupling isn't a grand passion, no matter what they pretend. It's more of a lark.

Except for Laurence O'Dwyer's kindly and world-weary friar, no one seems capable of a selfless act. The siblings are surrounded by venality, duplicity and corruption. Lovers betray lovers. A cardinal harbors a murderer and employs dubious means to enrich the church's coffers. For that matter, Giovanni and Annabella are pieces of work. He rhapsodizes about the delights of adulterous love; she marries without telling her new husband she's pregnant by another man.

The audience can't help but keep an emotional distance from characters this unlikable, an attitude more conducive to appreciating comedy than tragedy.

The cast uniformly knows how to deliver archaic dialogue persuasively. Particularly fine are Richard Ruiz as Bergetto, Annabella's most foolish suitor, and Carmen Roman as Putana, the girl's guardian and tutor. When a panic-stricken Giovanni asks Putana how she can be certain that Annabella is pregnant, the incredulous disbelief in Roman's face and voice says volumes about the gap between pampered youth and hard-won experience.

But a great deal gets sacrificed with the lowering of the show's temperature. Ford's theme is the clash between an ungovernable passion and social constraints, and that message is lost if the audience doesn't believe that an unbearable yearning exists between brother and sister.

The costumes heighten the audience's confusion. Lewis and designer Candice Donnelly mix styles and centuries with abandon, so that, for instance, one character wears a black velvet smoking jacket over a pair of saffron-colored, wide-legged Indian trousers.

The goal might have been to convey to the audience that the conflicts explored by 'Tis Pity are universal. But for that message to get across, the audience first has to know what type of show it's watching.

if you go

'Tis Pity She's a Whore runs through April 5 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10-$60. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.

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