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True Blood

Vengeance better than romance in this Jacobean thriller

Colby Chambers touches on taboo with Kristen Sieh.

By John Barry | Posted 3/25/2009

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Through April 5 at Center Stage

OK, maybe you got your John Fords mixed up. Give or take a few hundred years, the American director and the Jacobean playwright have one thing in common: They both dabble in frontier justice. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is probably closer to Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch than The Searchers, though, so be warned: If you want blood, you've got it.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, deep in the 17th-century, is powered by revenge: amoral, lust-driven, and ultimately, strangely satisfying. It's the story of people who manage to take things to the next step, and, when teetering on the lip of hell, are willing to take the plunge. Since this play revolves around a quickly escalating incestuous relationship between a brother and his oft-courted sister, the ball gets rolling quickly.

What drives this story are the moments when, faced with eternal damnation, and for no reason that anyone else can really divine, people decide to go down with their middle finger raised against the universe. The best scene in this production hits somewhere toward the end. Hippolita (Felicity Jones)--a gaunt, angry woman scorned--in her attempt to poison the nobleman Soranzo, who turned her into a whore, accidentally sips the poisoned chalice that she was actually saving for him at his wedding. Her death is an extended seizure, taken to the limit in a charmingly bile-driven performance by Jones. To add seasoning, her last gasps are watched over by a papal emissary (John Ramsey), who is helplessly dangling the rosary beads, waiting to give her a chance for redemption. On the brink of eternal damnation, she chooses to focus on the object of her wrath: the guy who dumped her.

Those moments, which naturally accumulate at the end, are what fuels this production. But in this play, revenge is only half of the story. The story itself is a romance, as well. Not your average romance, but an all-in-the family romance between a young man, Giovanni (Colby Chambers), and his sister, the naïve and beautiful Annabella (Kristen Sieh). This taboo, like everything in Ford's play, gets taken to the limit.

Directed by Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, this production splashes around merrily in the bloody aftermath and offers some impressive swordfights in the process--a shout-out is due to fight choreographer J. Allen Suddeth--but the driving lust behind that relationship appears to have seeped out of the play. The romance as acted out between the two young lovers is a little awkward, and even a little wooden. In the playbill, it's compared to Romeo and Juliet, but it falls flat--until the end, when the young Giovanni finally shows that he means business.

Simply stated, there's more blood than lust in this one. The brother-sister relationship is almost a sideshow for the characters who wander around, wading in blood and blind loyalties. What really attracts are the somewhat brutish swagger of characters who are just plain bad. Eric Feldman plays a pretty convincing male monster as Soranzo: a self-assured young nobleman who tries to squeeze a marriage out of the young Hippolita while leaving other women in his wake. As Annabella's mentor, Putana, Carmen Roman offers a teasingly funny portrait of a guide who, after her initial shock, appears titillated by her mentee's forays into incest. And Tom Bloom delivers as Donaldo, the older guy trying to instruct his hapless nephew in the ways of love.

But the strongest performance, not surprisingly, comes from the character who ultimately winds up on top: Vasquez, the sneering, contemptuous servant who guides his master Soranzo through the circus of blood and hones his desire for revenge. In a controlled, visceral performance, Reese Madigan is a delight to watch as he moves from being sidekick to puppeteer. His stage patter, his caustic comments, and his dark wit give an unlikely comic tone to a worst case scenario.

'Tis Pity is at its best at its bloodiest, and the end is, for those who can take it, worth the ride. Unfortunately, the other half of the production--the actual love affair that sets the ball rolling--isn't visceral enough to merit all the blood surrounding it.

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