‘’Tis Pity She’s a Whore,' a bloody, presciently modern work by 17th-century playwright John Ford, opens at BAM

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Lydia Wilson and Jack Gordan (Richard Termine )
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The seventeenth-century English playwright John Ford is currently enjoying a real moment in the New York theater. One month after Theatre for a New Audience staged his bloody tragedy The Broken Heart at the Duke on 42nd Street, another of Ford’s plays has opened in a new production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This time, it’s his most famous work, the equally grisly 'Tis Pity She’s A Whore, presented by the British company Cheek by Jowl under the direction of Declan Donnellan.

First published in 1633, some twenty years after the end of Shakespeare’s heyday as a working dramatist in London, the play is set in the Italian (read: decadent) city of Parma, and focuses on a pair of twin siblings, Giovanni and Annabella, whose forbidden desire for each other becomes the catalyst for a number of gruesome events. It’s become customary in recent years for interpreters of Ford’s work to compare him to Quentin Tarantino, and not without good reason. Elaborating upon the standard conventions of earlier revenge tragedies like Titus Andronicus or Hamlet, ’Tis Pity piles up the bodies, calling for six deaths and numerous mutilations in the original, uncut text.

Cheek by Jowl’s production slices the script to the bone. An entire comic subplot and the four characters bound up in it have been cut out completely, and many of the other roles have likewise been radically trimmed. Only occasionally does this drastic editing cut too quick, sometimes making plot transitions or character development feel inexplicable to the audience. For the most part, however, what remains is a short, tightly-paced production (just under two hours with no intermission) with considerably fewer corpses left in its wake. Still, where stage blood is concerned, this streamlined ’Tis Pity does not fail to deliver on the playwright’s characteristic gore.

Ford’s tragedies, however, are more than mere horror shows. His characters brood under the weight of an obscure melancholy, suffering and relishing in their impossible passions to a degree that might best be called operatic. Already at the turn of the twentieth century, critic and theorist Georg Lukács detected within these plays an untimeliness, a seed that would later flower under the dark sun of late-nineteenth-century modernism. In his view, Ford looked forward to Flaubert, Maeterlinck, Stefan George, and not least of all, Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. A century later, Ford remains our contemporary.

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Cheek by Jowl’s production underscores this sense of Ford as a modern author. Framing the space with a single upstage wall painted entirely red, Nick Ormerod’s scenery sets the sprawling action entirely within Annabella’s bedroom. Additional red furniture and various pop culture emblems (posters for Gone with the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and "True Blood") adorn the space. At its center is an unmade bed—its sheets and comforter also crimson—which serves as an inner stage where much of the action plays out, and as a dais for the display of the female body.

As Annabella, Lydia Wilson spends much of the production standing on this dais as an object of the rapacious lust of the men who scramble beneath her for her attention. (This staging recalls the opening scene of Wedekind’s Lulu, and along with Salomé, Lulu is the other great modern myth of the monstrous feminine. Annabella prefigures both. And suggestively—spoiler alert—both Annabella and Lulu meet similar fates.) The production opens with her in this position, commanding with gestures an elaborate dance routine from the other eleven members of the mostly-male cast. Throughout the performance, the men are clothed in fashionable yet nearly identical black suits, an anonymous horde of male oglers prowling through her bedroom, keeping her under the strictest surveillance. In an era when women's reproductive rights are once again up for debate, this gesture made what Annabella calls her "wretched woeful woman's tragedy" seem particularly timely.

The sense of ensemble created by the twelve players is the production’s great strength. Wilson is particularly striking as a waifish, apparently teenage Annabella: from the start there is something broken and almost mechanical about her halting, hesitant way of speaking and moving through this world of male hunger. The rest of the ensemble is similarly impressive. A young, athletic group, they convey Ford’s terse dialogue and propulsive sense of dramatic action with muscular agility, punctuating the flow of events only occasionally with dance breaks and sculptural tableau effects.

Apart from these frame-breaking moments, the actors approach the play mostly by delving deep into the darkly naturalistic aspects of its plot, characters, and violent actions. This naturalism is frequently tempered by comic moments and visual gags—Suzanne Burden and Lizzie Hopley especially (as the lusty widow Hippolita and the venal maidservant Putana) find impressive ways to exploit Ford’s gallows humor. But the quickness with which comedy swings to nightmarish violence and back feels always vertiginous.

For example, in order to get Putana to confess the identity of Annabella’s lover, the play’s villainous malcontent Vasques (an impressive Laurence Spellman) brings onstage a leather-bound Chippendale dancer to perform a campy strip routine for her. After having extracted Giovanni’s name, the stripper proceeds to hump Putana’s body, make out with her, suck her tongue from her mouth, and… bite it off. The effect is horrifying, but entirely faithful to Ford’s macabre sensibility: It is equal parts Lavinia from Titus Andronicus and the eyeball-sucking scene from Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Given that Kane was also influenced by Ford, the contemporary British theater scene seems to have come full circle. As is the case with the terrifying acts of violence that appear in Kane’s dramas, this production too is not for the faint of heart.

''Tis Pity' is playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. Tickets are $25 to $80 and are available at 718.636.4100 or here.