Lydia Wilson and Jack Gordon
in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
(© Manuel Harlan)
Lydia Wilson and Jack Gordon
in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
(© Manuel Harlan)
It's not difficult to see why John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore sparked controversy when first staged nearly 400 years ago. Indeed, Cheek by Jowl's presentation, currently at the BAM Harvey Theater, plays up the still-edgy premise in a raucously sexy and provocative production directed by Declan Donnellan.

At the heart of the play is the forbidden love story between Giovanni (Jack Gordon) and his sister, Annabella (Lydia Wilson). The incest taboo remains strongly entrenched in contemporary society, and it's clear from the outset that their love affair will end badly -- and since this is a Jacobean drama, bloodily, as well.

The script has been edited down -- trimming or eliminating altogether several subplots -- and the production runs just under two hours without an intermission. This has the effect of streamlining the piece to focus on the Giovanni-Annabella romance, and the complications that ensue when she becomes pregnant and marries one of her many suitors, Soranzo (Jack Hawkins) to save herself from public scandal.

Designer Nick Ormerod costumes the ensemble in modern dress (and oftentimes undress), while the posters adorning the set's walls -- including one for HBO's True Blood -- also clearly establish the time period as the present-day.

Much of the staging is stylized and presentational, and includes several choreographed sequences from movement director Jane Gibson that help to heighten the emotions of a scene, or to highlight its comic nature.

However, the poetic language of the play is treated seriously, and is well delivered by the cast. Gordon is particularly good at caressing the words he says while Giovanni woos his sister. Wilson's subtle changes in intonation clearly convey her character's mood and intention.

Among the supporting cast, Suzanne Burden is deliciously devious as the widow Hippolita, while Lizzie Hopley delights as the open-minded Putana, who is one of the few characters who know of the siblings' romance from early-on.

There's no escaping the problematic gender politics within the play, which delivers particularly harsh punishments for the female characters' transgressions. The imbalance is actually heightened by the cuts in this production, as the final fates of some of the men are not decided as definitively as they are in the original script. But the point in which Donnellan concludes the play is a strong one, and the distant wail of a police siren does indicate that there are further consequences to be heaped upon the already tragic events.