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'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Red Bull Theater offers a rare revival of John Ford's permanently controversial play.

Amelia Pedlow, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, and Matthew Amendt in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, directed by Jesse Berger, at the Duke on 42nd Street.
(© Richard Termine)

When the German authorities convicted Patrick Stübing of incest, he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Germany had deprived him of his right to a private family life (in this case, the right to father four children with his biological sister). In 2012, the European court responded unanimously: There is no fundamental right to commit incest. While such judicial proclamations seem unique to the 21st century, English playwright John Ford was already weighing the moral and ethical implications of incest in the early 17th century with his controversial play 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, which is currently receiving a revival from Red Bull Theater at the Duke on 42nd Street. It's a fascinating (and disturbing) dramatic artifact that is given fleshy life in this well-designed and superbly acted production.

Annabella (the beautiful and meek Amelia Pedlow) is an eligible young maiden of Parma. Her father Florio (Philip Goodwin) is considering several suitors for her including powerful Roman gentleman Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman), the foppish Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo), and Lord Sorzano (Clifton Duncan). However, Annabella only has eyes for her brother Giovanni (Matthew Amendt). The feelings are mutual and their clandestine love is soon consummated, even though all of society stands against it. It's kind of like Romeo and Juliet, but with incest.

That illicit subject is certainly one of the reasons 'Tis Pity hasn't received nearly the same level of popular-culture traction as Shakespeare's tragedy of star-crossed love. We recoil in disgust at the notion of brother-sister love when still today the occasional account arises as a curiosity in the press (as in the case of Stübing). Even the ever-controversial George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones reserves this most taboo of taboos for the villainous Lannister siblings. Incest remains completely unacceptable through most of human society, arguably with good reason. That's why it's so remarkable that Ford was casting a sympathetic light on Giovanni and Annabella nearly 400 years ago.

Director Jesse Berger accentuates that sympathy in this production, making their first tepid interactions quite charming and giving the subsequent post-coital scenes the soft-lighting treatment (design by Peter West). As if to hammer home the persistent radioactivity of this subject, costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti brilliantly synthesizes baroque Italian looks with modern streetwear. The actors wear metallic paisley prints and leather jackets with Elizabethan collars. David M. Barber's set furthers this theme with faux-marble floors and an oddly shiny hallway table. Annabella doesn't look out on her forbidden love from a Juliet balcony, but from an inset one that wouldn't look out of place on a Florida condominium.

Clad in ostentatiously high heels, a leopard-print fur, and a leather codpiece, Garbayo provides much-needed comic relief. Everett Quinton adds to the fun as Bergetto's uncle Donado. The two have a hilarious rapport, with Quinton facepalming throughout Bergetto's many scatterbrained notions. As the ridiculously named Putana (Annabella's sex-positive confidant), Franchelle Stewart Dorn is almost saintly in her compassion.

Amendt does an incredible job of making Giovanni understandable and, at times, even likable. As the character's psychotic jealousy begins to take over, however, not even an amiable performer can save him. Any sympathy we may have accrued for these social outlaws is completely squandered by the Jacobean desire to see a pile of bodies onstage. Giovanni's position becomes untenable and there is no one left to root for.

This cast is so good at being so bad. Derek Smith shows his Vasques (Sorzano's Spanish servant) to be a slimy opportunist. Wearing a long black coat, Marc Vietor's Richardetto is a cartoonish villain reminiscent of Christopher Lloyd in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Rocco Sisto's deep-voiced Cardinal is positively demonic.

Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet have choreographed terrifyingly realistic stage violence to be perpetrated by these ghouls. We can't help but gasp as Sorzano repeatedly slams Annabella's head into the wall.

Through thick layers of sensationalism, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore emerges as a stinging condemnation of the patriarchy. No matter your feelings on incest, no one will leave this production thinking that justice has been done. The fact that Ford's play still has the power to rile our emotions four centuries later is truly a testament to its lasting power.

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