It’s like Romeo and Juliet, only they’re brother and sister.” That’s the way a friend summed up John Ford’s circa 1633 tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as we were on our way to Impact Theatre’s production in the basement of La Val’s Pizza. If you leave out the warring clans and whatnot, the description is disturbingly accurate. In Ford’s play the lovers are star-crossed and doomed less because of the folly of others (which is certainly present in abundance) than because knocking up your sister is really just a terrible idea.
The blithe assessment that gives the play its title may be a trifle harsh and one-sided, but it’s hard to get through the play without exclaiming, “Jesus Christ, people, what the hell are you thinking?” Indeed, many of Ford’s elaborate epithets and the bloody deeds that ensue are so over the top that the natural impulse is to laugh, especially when something horrible is happening.
Without camping it up too much, that’s a response that Impact’s rough-and-tumble staging seems to encourage. Impact artistic director Melissa Hillman has directed one Shakespeare play each season since 2002, but this is the first time she’s staged a classic by one of the bard’s near-contemporaries instead — the same play, as it happens, that Carey Perloff is directing at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco starting the same weekend that Impact’s production closes.
As the much sought-after Annabella, a great beauty whom everyone in town seems to want to marry, Marissa Keltie has a marvelously expressive face that makes each emotion palpable and infectious, whether she’s embodying horror, amusement, young lust, or despair. As effective as she is in these emotional moments, what’s missing is a sense of the middle ground between them to make her performance feel like more than a formidable bag of tricks.
John Terrell plays her loving brother Giovanni as a moping teenager, with a boyish immaturity that makes it somehow plausible that he might be able to convince himself that what he’s doing is okay. Similarly, Robert Bergin’s milquetoast swooning early on as Annabella’s suitor Soranzo winds up making his red-faced rage later in the play more effectively startling.
His foppish would-be rival Bergetto is played by Jai Sahai as an amusingly exuberant emo kid who comes off like Maynard G. Krebs in eyeliner and a Good Charlotte T-shirt. Some muddled bits of funny business with his father Donado (Warden Lawlor) and servant Poggio (Sarah Coykendall) aren’t quite comprehensible but help keep the pace lively anyway.
The siblings’ father Florio becomes their mother in Hillman’s version, played by Mary Ann Mackey as a breezy society dame with a cocktail affixed to her hand. In each scene she’s accompanied by a different uncredited walk-on boy toy, which is a cute touch, but the extra bodies can be confusing when you’re trying to get a handle on who all the actual speaking parts are in the first place.
Among this mob are Kendra Oberhauser, a slinky film-noir femme fatale as Soranzo’s ex-lover Hippolita; a brooding Harold Pierce as her supposedly dead husband Richardetto; Mayra Gaeta’s innocent ingénue Philotis; and Tim Redmond in brawling fratboy mode as yet another suitor. Seth Hans Thygesen moves silkily from folksy charm to cold-blooded efficiency as Soranzo’s bodyguard Vasques.
John Ferreira’s stern and concerned look is fixed to his face as Father Bonaventura, and rightfully so, as he’s the one who has to convey the overly loving siblings about the torments of hell in lavish detail. His opposite number is Miyuki Bierlein as Annabella’s gal pal Putana, who sees nothing wrong with incest as long as they don’t get caught. Her cavalier attitude might be more shocking if the largely collegiate audience weren’t cheering when the sibs start tearing each other’s clothes off.
Though the actors handle the Caroline English just fine, Hillman’s thoroughly modern production plays it fast and loose throughout, amping up the melodrama at every opportunity. One especially interesting device is piling the dead bodies in a corner of the stage over the course of the second half.
A subplot about Richardetto’s revenge has been cut down until the part that remains is confusing and unresolved. One awkward cut positions the intermission after an anticlimactic scheming scene that follows two cliffhangers and probably should have been cut along with the scene that originally followed it.
Mike Sweeney’s sound design provides a moody mix of Björk, Moby, and other electronic music. Fight choreographer Dave Maier’s brutal tussles include one especially animated death scene that isn’t even in the script. Choco Couture’s naturalistic costumes range from Giovanni’s strictly casual jeans and T-shirt to clingy cocktail dress for Hippolita, and Andrew Susskind’s minimal baby-blue bedroom set looks as if it could simply be left over from a previous production. But with all the blood spilled on it, a simple set is probably the way to go. Be careful not to slip in the gore on your way out.