‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

A Red Orchid Theatre

By Carol Burbank

The slasher film is by now a time-honored tradition. The killer, infected by some inexplicable, incurable brand of evil, pursues buxom young girls and their buff dude counterparts. Characters do one thing wrong–undress alone, laugh at fear, wander off to pee or fuck in the wrong part of the haunted house–and we know who the next victim will be. The music vibrates, the killer becomes the camera, and we yell just like we didn’t know what was coming. It’s a sexual experience: anticipation and climax leave sudden stillness and a big mess. May I have another sir, we moan, half afraid our voyeur’s pleasure will make us suddenly visible to the killer. He’ll see us seeing him, and it could turn into something real. It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…

It’s so delicious. And understanding that wicked pleasure, director Dexter Bullard has transformed an over-the-top Jacobean play into heavily eroticized slasher theater. Who would have thought that John Ford’s 1633 ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore could be so much fun?

Most often directors use the gorgeous language and excessive corruption of Ford’s drama to stage an ironic morality play: the amoral greed of the Italian aristocracy transforms the story into a fable of misplaced love and tragic undoing. When Giovanni and his sister Annabella consummate their fatal forbidden passion, it becomes the one pure thing in a culture where deception and greed poison every noble family. Pregnant, Annabella is married off to a nasty-hearted aristocrat, himself the object of several schemes for vengeance that culminate in one of those horrifically ridiculous mass death scenes. Evil is vanquished; long live evil. Roll credits.

Bullard in this A Red Orchid production realizes the goofy National Enquirer potential of this web of intrigue and incest, mixing characters and images from contemporary pop culture with Ford’s poetic language. Like a slasher film with intellectual oomph, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore multiplies every incident and situation tenfold: adolescent sex is grand passion, petty vengeance is seductive vampirism, the marriage market is a masque of death. No one can be trusted, and no one will be spared the poisonous grip of corruption. Like a slasher film, this production makes it all feel just real enough to generate a gasp, a groan, and a guilty giggle that reveals our own complicity in the gore.

The two lovers in Ford’s play are a twisted Romeo and Juliet, beautiful and doomed by their own stupidity. As Giovanni, Michael Shannon is an impulsive, sloppy boy whose jaw is locked with repressed emotion. Despite a mumbling delivery, which weakens the emotional impact of the tragedy, Shannon plays his character with the fever of a not very clever serial killer. His contemporary gestures and graphic violence make him into a slasher surprised by his own dementia, in a kind of Jacobean “Fatal Attraction Meets Halloween.” When love turns to despair, Giovanni sacrifices the pregnant Annabella to his fantasies of romantic love, stabbing her and cutting out her heart to display to the horrified assembly. Holding her bloody heart aloft (here an actual cow’s heart), he goads his sister’s husband into killing him, mumbling something about wanting to die beside Annabella as he flops grotesquely and comically into death. As they lay on the “altar” at the center of Robert G. Smith’s strategically simple set, I half expected a camera to cut in for a close-up while an MTV diva crooned in the background. It was all so abstract, so pretty, so artfully, timelessly modern.

As Annabella, Laura Ruth looks the part of the maiden who, in a Freddy Krueger film, would survive despite her weakness. She’d survey the carnage and subside into temporary madness, purged of her sin. But neither Ford nor Bullard gives her any safe harbor. She stumbles through the plot to her inevitable death looking delicate, ill, and beautiful, although it’s clear from Ruth’s playful and aggressive sexuality and willful rages that Annabella has never been the pure flower that her appearance suggests. This irony is a breathless part of the roller-coaster ride of the show–given the film stereotypes Bullard is playing with, we keep thinking that this Annabella will be saved despite the bloody plot. Her destruction is visceral and frightening, staged with satisfying and bloody eroticism: Bullard forces us to recognize the carnality of our own need to see innocence corrupted. Her death is exciting, sad, horrible–the kind of death that sells movie tickets.

Other contemporary touches make the play even more fun. For comic relief, Bullard has made the play’s fools into facsimiles of Beavis and Butt-head. Annabella’s hapless suitor and his servant, Bergetto and Poggio, strut, stroke, and fart their way into our hearts. These characters make no sense in Ford’s play, but as played by Dominic Conti and Wesley Walker, they’re a welcome offering to us groundlings of the 20th century. Following slasher rules, they come to a bad end, their nonsense cut off by one of the subplots gone wrong.

In fact, everyone here meets a bad end except the truly evil characters, who take the money and go off to spread their ill will elsewhere. Like Freddy, they’ll never die. But whatever their fate, all the characters–even the incidental ones–are drawn in this production with cinematic specificity.

Women are destroyed by their sexuality. Hippolita, jilted lover of Annabella’s eventual husband, slithers her way through poisonous seductions, dancing voluptuously, and dies a victim of her own foiled vengeance. The aptly named Putana, maid to Annabella and helpmeet to her incestuous liaisons, meets her end because she lives vicariously through other people’s lust. Played by Hanna Dworkin, Putana is not the old hag of the script but a buxom redhead in a tight dress. It’s a good twist on the character–as if the reason for her doom were embodied in her sensuous flesh. These women, like their movie counterparts, are reduced to their bodies with a very conscious, culturally parodic irony.

The men fall victim to power, or the loss of it. Their loyalty to honor, status, and money drives them to lust and revenge, to hapless, masturbatory destruction. In contemporary terms, these are the adults who live like adolescents and are sacrificed by pseudomoral psychos in movies like Seven. Richardetto (Steve Juergens) is a prime example of both: Hippolita’s cuckolded husband, he returns to his hometown in disguise to seek revenge. With the feral glee of a boy he lays traps for those who wronged him, only to see his schemes destroy his family’s hopes for wealth. Others see their plans wither but pursue them to the bitter end. Persistence and curiosity become their nightmares.

The only survivors are the capitalists, a point that Bullard emphasizes–perhaps his greatest accomplishment in this ‘Tis Pity. Just as Scream parodied the commercialism of slasher movies even as it entertained us with blood and thunder, Bullard parodies the capitalist morality of classic tragedy. Using contemporary cinematic pacing and images, he mocks the self-serving sanctimony of capitalism, represented in Ford’s play by the church. In the final moment–the pro forma punishment of the servant Vasquez, played with the brilliant shape-shifting malevolence of a corporate lackey by Paul Dillon–Bullard heightens the pleasure of the carnage by showing its futility.

It’s not often I get the chance in the theater to be a cynical, greedy, gore-loving, thrill-chasing groundling. But Bullard gives us more than that pleasure–which in a way pays homage to the blood and thunder of the playwright’s Jacobean world. He carefully prepares an orgy out of our own cultural circus, linking the sexuality of violence with the cynicism of capitalism. Stunningly, we get to have fun while we’re pierced by our own voyeuristic blade.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore theater still.