‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ delivers the true meaning of tainted love

Johnny McKeown playing Giovanni and Rachel Towne playing Annabella in the SU Drama production of
’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.’
Photo: Michael Davis

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Who Syracuse University Drama Department
Where The Storch Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
When Through Nov. 11
Tickets: $18
Review by Greg Cwik

On an austere set of smoldering gray—angular, impending joists and shadowy arches with sliding opaque doors and a wiry-thin fascia looming above like inevitable finality—a gaunt man jaunts across stage with sinister suavity, his long hair as black as his garbs and, one might attest, his soul.

With his arms moving wildly, he smooth-talks and threatens. He captivates with hyperbolic flair, the melodrama of surrounding events seeping into his performance like oil on dirt, but his accent is hard to place. He sounds kind of English, as do some of his consorts, then a bit of an Irish sass slips in. At one point, he Russian-rolls his R, as if ready to demand a fifth of vodka. But his name is Vasquez and he’s Spanish. As the scary Spaniard, Corey Steiner holds our eyes hostage—we can’t look away from him, even as he throws women around like a frustrated child with his lesser-liked action figures—but he’s inconsistent. Sometimes he’s calm, sometimes un poco loco and locomotive-angry, his dialect harkening to at least four different countries. Yet, he’s always entertaining, a natural showman.

Such is SU Drama’s production of John Ford’s incestuous melodramatic tragedy Tis Pity Shes a Whore. Opening with a small, acoustic rupture of cacophonous strings and percussion, the play, directed by assistant professor Celia Madeoy, establishes a certain musical prowess that runs like an artery through its core.

The music, most pertinently used at the beginning of both halves, conflates sparse avant-garde with modern pop: cellos and acoustic guitars pluck and whine with sorrow-laced faux-spontaneity (it’s all carefully calculated, of course) as a direful Lady Gaga cover crystalizes. The music is the most enthralling part of the production— jazz pulled straight from prohibition, all flappers and girdles and fedoras; Elliott Smith-style crooning over finger-picked guitar woes; a strangely arousing rendition of Britney’s “Toxic,” the spare string plucks and lush vocal fluidity so seedy-sexy you can almost feel the fingernails tearing down your back.

The music is so good that’s you may feel lost whenever the story takes center stage. Like our devious Spanish friend, the sort-of-linear narrative is confusing and serpentine, unforgiving to newcomers; those who don’t read the plot synopsis in the program and can still follow along deserve commendation.

Johnny McKeown and Rachel Towne in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.’
Photo: Michael Davis

As in John Ford’s early 1600s play, saturated with melancholia and misanthropy, Tis Pity portrays the incestuous love between a brother, Giovanni (Johnny McKeown) and sister, Annabella (Rachel Towne). A multitude of would-be gentlemen in gray suits want Annabella to be their bride, but Annabella loves her brother, in every possible way. Giovanni, returning home from school, confesses his immoral love to his Friar friend (Jon Parry), who begs him to repent and abandon the relationship. Instead, Giovanni gets his sister pregnant.

A vast array of sketchy people populate this play, most of who display more care toward their wardrobes than their women. The plot grows as thick as an untamed vine garden, moving up and down and sideways, but it doesn’t really matter: It’s at its best when it grabs us in the moment, whether with its furious depiction of love’s inherent corrosiveness or with the Tom Waits-weird musical arrangements. The set is gorgeous—a round table-like thing acts as a bed, a light, an altar, a podium, a statue and even a table; a sliding screen door obscures our vision just enough to offer murky flesh-colored silhouettes of sex and murder —and the lighting illuminates and radiates, adds to the atmosphere and doesn’t distract. On a purely visceral, aesthetic level, Tis Pity works wonderfully.

The first half of the play is a mess, though, and some of the performers can’t guise their inexperience. Some supporting players are like pieces of drift wood wandering around on stage, raising their voice when they mean to inflect, flailing their arms to convey emotion; it’s kind of painful.

The narrative’s more confusing moments frustrate, whereas the musical experiments alleviate. It’s really hard to ignore or overlook the weaker links. But moments of sudden brilliant, blistering clarity split the stuffy air, as when the manic mistress Hippolita (Tayler Beth Anderson) unleashes a hellfire deluge of anger, love, hate, all amalgamated into some bestial, throaty growls. And the Rat Pack-lite Bergetto (Matt Maretz) steals every scene he saunters into: He furrows his brows and spits fire hose-mini-monologues so sharp, even the other players appear to struggle in containing their laughter. Seeming on the verge of breaking into “Make ‘Em Laugh” and running up walls, Maretz lends an air of much-welcomed hyperbole and humor, helping the audience to look past some of the stiffer performances. His gut-busting final scene would easily make a highlight reel of the production’s finer moments.

Giovanni and Annabella share a kiss as the incestuous couple in ‘Tis Pity.’
Photo: Michael Davis

And then the second half starts and the tragedy swells. Faces are punched; eyes are stabbed; stomachs are split; women are abused; people are thrown around, kicked, stepped on, shot; more women are abused. Without ruining anything (though the Jacobean play is 400 years old and well-known among theater and literature aficionados), suffice it to say that a human heart is literally served on a silver platter.

This is pure verismo: blood, guts, love, lust—melodrama with gaudier aspirations. And it’s glorious.

Of course, none of this works without strong leads. As the heavy-hearted, conflicted brother, McKeown captures the tragedy of the every-man; in his chunky sweater, McKeown projects, with subtly and grace, the revulsion of forbidden love. He whispers with keen articulation, and consequently his shouts lacerate deeper. Towne, flashing a smile that could kick-start a dead man’s heart, delves bravely into the unforgiving (and often unflattering) role of the titular “whore.” When the pair strips to their undergarments, we’re focused on their movements, their emotion and eminent torment, not the fact that they’re in their underwear. Their chemistry feels starkly contrast to the unnatural, discomforting love; if they weren’t siblings, they’d be a great couple. And maybe they’re a great couple anyway. Both performers slowly shed their dignity as the roles require. Their slow, sorrowful unraveling holds the narrative together.

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