The title of John Ford’s “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” is still shocking. Published in 1633, this is one of the great decadent dramas written during the chaotic reign of Charles I in the years leading up to the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell, the closing of the theaters and all that mess.
Now on stage at the Irish Classical Theatre Company, in a production directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, this is the bloody and tragic story of Giovanni and his inappropriate love for his sister Annabella. Giovanni misuses the logic he has learned at university to justify his lustful desires. The friar, his former teacher, warns him to repent, but to no avail. When Annabella becomes pregnant, she hastily and unhappily marries her devoted suitor, Soranzo. Later, the groom is none too pleased to discover that his wife is evidently an abomination and a whore.
Things get worse from there.
John Ford had a taste for the outrageous and a fascination with what we might call abnormal psychology. The play is intriguing for the extreme choices and reactions of the characters. “Tis Pity” is thrilling for its succession of “Oh my God this can’t be happening!” moments.
During Act One of the opening night at Irish Classical Theatre, however, I thought to myself, “Never have incest and treachery been presented with greater dignity.” That is not a good thing.
The action crept along at a plodding pace. Never did the momentum alter in any way. Multiple subplots were introduced without clarity.
It seems that Pezzimenti envisioned a regal production. Even the music was stately. Humor (even of the “Ewww!” variety) was parsed out sparingly, in wholesome morsels or not at all.
There were glimmers of hope and flashes of inspiration. Charmagne Chi’s performance as Putana, servant to Annabella, had some zest and daring. Adam Yellen offered some madcap courage in his choices for Bergetto, idiot nephew of Signor Donato and suitor to Annabella. In the smaller roles, Christian Brandjes, Ben Michael Moran, Jacob Albarella and David Oliver did their best to articulate what was going on.
In the main, however, this show was all fuse and no explosion. I returned from intermission without much hope, and when the second half resumed with more somnambulant stately music, I felt we must be lost.
Happily, from the moment Annabella marries Soranzo, we shift gears and things abruptly take off. Suddenly we begin to experience the flavor and fervor of Caroline drama. The first suggestion of the shift occurs when dancers from the town arrive, unannounced, to perform in celebration of the nuptials. Choreographer Lauren Nicole Alaimo has actually given them Bob Fosse moves. Observe the serpentine arm twists behind their backs; the unison moves with faces posed in one direction. This is choreography imbued with playful devilment.
The scene explodes into Aleks Malejs’ big moment as Hippolita, a woman who has been wronged by Soranzo. It is outrageous. It is gruesome. It is fun.
It has taken four acts, but finally, we are off to the races, and from here on, each action will be topped by an equal and opposite overreaction.
The role of Soranzo’s servant, Vasques, played by Rolando Martin Gomez, turns out to be fantastic. While his lines do not always come forward with unconscious recall, Gomez does delight in his character’s delicious evil and gives a winning performance.
Anna Krempholtz and Jeremy Kreuzer finally locate their footing as Annabella and Giovanni in the extremity of their self-determined predicament. Krempholtz finds a worthy opponent in Adriano Gatto’s delightfully distraught and unhinged Soranzo. Kreuzer finds his character’s motivation in all-out mayhem.
Adriano Gatto’s fight direction is excellent and exciting.
This is a handsome-looking production. The set by David Dwyer provides an appropriate dramatic setting. He has filled the ceiling with a veritable sky of taper candles, and the stage is left wide open for fluidity of playing. Vivian DelBello’s costumes are similarly effective, and sometimes pleasingly strange. And on this occasion, special praise certainly goes to Prop Master Roy Walker whose work enhances the final scene of the play immeasurably.
While it takes a long time to find its tone and to gain momentum, “Tis Pity She’s a Whore” does finally get those pistons firing. Listen carefully during the first half. After intermission, hold on tight and enjoy the ride.
" 'Tis a Pity, She's a Whore"
3 stars (out of four)
Presented by Irish Classical Theatre Company through Oct. 13, at the Andrews Theatre (625 Main St.). Performances are Thursday and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket are $20-$49. Call 716-853-ICTC or visit irishclassicaltheatre.com