Goodman Theatre

The Sunday matinee audience at Goodman Theatre’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore murmured when we saw the production’s first image–a Man Ray photo of a pair of shamed and shameless nude buttocks, projected onto a dark stage to the accompaniment of what turns out to be nearly nonstop electronic music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. We laughed when a masque performed by a group of “lovely virgins” became a frighteningly forceful display of adolescent athleticism from a trio of Girl Scouts. We winced when assaulted by a row of white lights that beamed glaringly right into our faces. We jumped when two pairs of mannequin legs landed with a loud thump on the stage at the end of act one. We grimaced in revulsion when Putana, the comic relief, ran shrieking offstage, her face covered with blood after her eyes had been gouged out. We gasped when Giovanni, the handsome hero, took his beloved Annabella in his arms and then plunged a knife right into her pregnant belly; then we shuddered when he entered in the next scene, holding his lover’s bloody heart in his hands.

In short, we dug it. We didn’t always like it, but John Ford’s revenge melodrama spoke right to us, in JoAnne Akalaitis’s constantly thought-provoking production. We dug it because Akalaitis took the play exactly as seriously as she should–which is to say, both deadly seriously and not seriously at all.

Three and a half centuries down the line, it’s nearly impossible for a contemporary viewer to take seriously the blood-and-guts “tragedies” that so enthralled audiences in the days of Queen Elizabeth I and Kings James I and Charles I. Built on notions of “poetic justice,” plays like John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy–with their excessive gore and relentless carnage imposed on victims whose sins generally consisted of loving someone society didn’t want them to love–can’t lay claim to the sympathies of an audience whose own age records such grand-scale slaughter as the fascist Holocaust and America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The playwrights of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, whether or not their hearts were really in it, sought a sense of moral order in the sufferings of their characters; our own age is far less optimistic. Works like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Marlowe’s Edward II are able to move us because of the power of their verse, but that doesn’t necessarily make their moral stances more true.

Anyone looking for powerful verse won’t find it in the script of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. But in relocating the story to 1930s Italy (its original setting was the same nation 300 years earlier), Akalaitis and her wizardly design team have provided plenty of visual poetry of the best kind. “A poem should not mean but be,” as Archibald MacLeish wrote, and Akalaitis has fused her theatrical imagery and Ford’s text with convincing consistency and intelligence. The design elements don’t comment on the text; they become the text, exposing the intellectual core of its hideous content. The sleek lines and elegantly epic scale of John Conklin’s set, suggested by the artistic surrealism and futurism of the play’s transposed time, juxtapose the phallic columns and muscular torsos of imperial Rome with the insidious efficiency of the brave, amoral, automated new world ruled by Mussolini. Dreams and reality collide constantly–with the aid of Pat Collins’s extraordinary lighting, and by an amazing effect in which key actions (including Giovanni and Annabella’s lovemaking) are seen, as in a film or a living painting, behind a scrim on a small playing area above and behind the main stage. Isolated body parts are everywhere–a gigantic, marble gray, red-toenailed foot, graphics of babies’ faces, sculptured heads caked with dried black blood, and a huge poster of a baby’s arm, as well as the aforementioned mannequin legs. So when Giovanni comes tearing onto the stage with his lover’s heart in his hand, it’s all too natural–it should be, given Ford’s conscious foreshadowing of the murderous deed. “Rip up my bosom,” Giovanni tells Annabella when he first woos her, “there thou shalt behold / A heart, in which is writ the truth I speak.” When Giovanni thrusts the dead Annabella’s heart into her father’s face, it is the crucial, belated act of truth telling that climaxes a play full of deceit and hypocrisy.

Annabella’s parents, fatefully, are also Giovanni’s; the act that by tradition sets in motion the story’s dreadful bloodshed is willful incest between brother and sister. Critics have debated whether Ford shows sympathy or revulsion for this forbidden love; but any modern observer, certainly including Akalaitis, can’t help but think that even if Annabella is wrong for sleeping with Giovanni, she hardly had any choice, considering the awful alternatives presented her. Pursued by several men, and pushed by her father into choosing the worst of them, Annabella is a victim of circumstance indeed. Akalaitis isn’t shy about exposing the misogyny of the male-dominated society Annabella sins against–especially in the second act, when Annabella’s arrogant husband, Soranzo, brutally beats her, just before his scheming servant, Vasques, tricks Annabella’s nurse, Putana, into betraying her mistress, then gouges out her eyeballs while three thugs pin her arms. But the cruelties of this society aren’t so much a question of male versus female; the real issue, Akalaitis shows us, is jealousy–whether in Soranzo or in Hippolita, Soranzo’s spurned lover, who tries to knock off her ex with a cup of poison at his own wedding. It is jealous vengeance that motivates the several murders–including one by accident, which becomes the show’s most genuinely moving moment in the performances of Ross Lehman as the slain victim, Jenny Bacon as his ladylove, and Wilson Cain III as his servant.

The corrupting effect of arrogant jealousy and vengefulness is Akalaitis’s link between Ford’s drama and the modern setting she has given it. What was fascism, after all, except organized revenge by a group of malcontents against those who, as they perceived it, had done them wrong? And what was futurism–despite its bold and defiant rhetoric about “the love of danger,” “the habit of energy and fearlessness,” the breaking down of “the mysterious doors of the impossible”–other than the manifestation of destructive resentment of canonized culture?

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is certainly not for everyone. In a city famous for actors’ theater, this production asserts the primacy of a director; Akalaitis can carry it off, and I found the results endlessly fascinating but (ironically, given the play’s gore) bloodless. Lehman’s death scene aside, the performances are all very strong but almost never affecting–a deliberate choice by the director to steer us away from sentimentality and toward critical distance. The best performances are the most peculiar. There’s no other word for Erick Avari’s Vasques, who bustles about like a robust caterer while arranging the story’s most gruesome events; Joan Cusack’s gawky, goofy, ludicrously bewigged Putana; Don Cheadle’s weak, decadently drained Soranzo; Barbara E. Robertson’s exaggeratedly haughty Hippolita; Steve Pickering’s daffily grinning Friar Bonaventure (who, in a wonderful twist on Romeo and Juliet’s Friar Lawrence, encourages Annabella and Giovanni to do exactly the things that will destroy them, all in the name of piety); or George Matthew’s bland cardinal, who stands amid the dead bodies at the play’s end and calmly claims the leftovers for the pope.

Jesse Borrego and Lauren Tom, as Giovanni and Annabella, are athletic and sleek and loud but rather shallow. Here I confess I don’t know whether that’s what Akalaitis intended or merely was forced to settle for; in any case, it cements this constantly intriguing production’s antipassionate identity. “Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice!” claimed the futurists’ manifesto. While I would disagree with the statement’s sweep, there’s no denying the potency of art, such as this, that puts the world’s violence, cruelty, and injustice so coolly, so beautifully, and so inescapably before us for our consideration during, and after, the show.