Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tis Pity She's a Whore: Bloody Camp

With perhaps a nod too far into camp at times the Red Bull Theater production of John Ford's famous, bloody, incest tragedy still managed to show the hypocrisy and vanity of men, the power of the church, and the injustice of a corrupt state.  But it didn't do its utmost to provide important perspective on the underlying misogyny of the piece at all times. It's not a fatal blow but it's something that gave me pause.

Giovanni (Matthew Amendt), long lost in his studies and moping around for some unknown reason, finally confesses his love of his sister, Annabella (Amelia Pedlow). First he does so to his tutor, Friar Bonaventura (Christopher Innvar). Then he brings his sadness to his sister only to be met with a kindred spirit in her. The two consummate their relationship with their secret only being shared with the friar and the nurse Putana (Franchelle Stewart Dorn). Annabella has many suitors including the foppish Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo), the knavish solider Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman) and the imperious nobleman Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan). Soranzo has betrayed the widow Hippolita (Kelley Curran) whom he promised devotion to when she was married. She's having none of it and secretly plots behind his back with his aide Vasques (Derek Smith).

This is the third production of Tis Pity I have seen but it was the first American-born production. Cheek by Jowl toured NY in 2012 with a modern dress, rock and roll, blood-soaked production starring Lydia Wilson (looking nearly unrecognizable compared to her recent turn as Kate Middleton in King Charles III). In 2014, I saw the intimate candlelight production done in period dress and style at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London by the Globe Theatre. From both these productions I found the humor and the darkness were explored but in different blends. In both instances I found myself reacting to how appalling the misogyny of the characters was but reveling in how each production made clear it was not participating in that misogyny. The stomach turning finale left me with the bitter taste of injustice and the tragedy of the women in particular.

Red Bull production is quite clear--but perhaps too bluntly played. I think it's a fair production of a play that should be produced more.  Men and women lying, betraying, lusting, loving, and murdering. No one in this story is immune from sin. But the worst of these sins is incest.  From the beginning they know it is forbidden and no amount of Giovanni's rhetoric and logic and arguing can truly change that. But as in all things the women are always punished for their transgressions and even by men who have transgressed themselves.

Annabella's choices for other suitors between the vainglorious, the competitive, and the self-interested don't offer her the depth of affection Giovanni does. But once she finds herself pregnant she is forced to make a choice. Giovanni naturally just keeps on keeping on without the same consequences.

Similarly Hippolita may have thought Soranzo would marry her after she is widowed but when he refuses because in his estimation it would be more immoral to follow through on his promises than to abandon them and leave Hipppolita in the lurch. She tries to exact revenge. When she is thwarted the staging here left the audience laughing at her.

It was troubling. Even though the play is replete with misogynistic characters and attitudes befitting a play written in 1630, a production need not lean into the misogyny. In fact in prior productions what I liked was how a modern perspective could be applied on top of the play without it suffering. We can bring our head-shaking at what happens without joining into the condemnation of women. In fact the play can be made to felt that in fact the last line says more about the men than It does the women. We should be outraged by the lack of true justice beyond the tragic circumstances.  Certainly Jesse Berger's production plays into the hypocrisy and the corruption of the church. But I wish I'd felt a stronger POV about women in this world throughout.

Here I don't think the production intends to play on the misogyny but in leaning into high camp humor supplants reason. We are given space to laugh at the goings-on but I wasn't always sure who we were laughing at or why. And what kept getting lost was an observational perspective on the proceedings.

There are fine performances from Matthew Amendt and Amelia Pedlow. Ryan Garbayo was a fantastic Bergetto.  Over the top in dress and mannerisms (Sara Jane Tossetti's costumes are strong indicators of character and find the nice sweet spot between modern dress and a nod to more period style) are fine in this regard. The Bergetto storyline is meant to be our comic relief. But where I thought the camp overtook the text was with Vasques. The Soranzo universe is the height of hypocrisy and I wished we could have viewed them at all times in that way. There was far too much laughter when Vasques drags Hypollitas dead body from the stage by her hair. Though it shows his complete disregard for her something about it led the audience to think it was being played for laughs.  Since we had seen Vasques playing dastardly for comedy before it was not unexpected that the audience would follow that through in this scene but it was a critical misstep in how to deliver this story to a modern audience.

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