John Ford's titillating play 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore is a controversial work which plumbs the depths of incest, adultery, vengeance, and murder. Originally produced in the 17th century, Ford's sex- and gore-filled story about the love affair of a pair of siblings may seem slightly less sensational in our tabloid-centered modern world. Nevertheless, Toy Box Theatre Company's recent rendition is a solid, well-acted and well-designed production which definitely diverts. Ford's play follows the illicit love of Giovanni for his comely sister, Annabella. Unable to suppress his feelings, Giovanni confesses his passion to her. She reciprocates at once, consummating their relationship and rejecting all her other suitors. When Annabella's pregnancy forces her to marry the playboy Soranzo to cover up her transgressions, a cycle of betrayal and vengeance begins which can only end with a large pile of dead bodies.
Toy Box Theatre Company is offering a trimmed-down version of 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore which nevertheless clocks in at a hefty two-and-a-half hours. The loss of a single subplot doesn't harm the thrust of the story, but the trimmed cast of characters does lead to some improbable redistributions of lines, most notably when a regular friar suddenly has the authority to banish foreigners from the city.
This production is grounded by solid performances from the cast, particularly by Andrew Krug as Giovanni and Jessica Rothenberg as Annabella. Krug, intense and gaunt, handles Ford's verse well, while Rothenberg skillfully manages her character's transition from hopeful young love to despair. Their chemistry is particularly good during their touching first kiss.
David Michael Holmes is excellent as the slippery Vasques, a servant of Soranzo who dabbles in double-dealing with Hippolita (Sarah Hankins), Soranzo's enraged former lover. Hankins's jilted woman is particularly strong, as she finds both the anger and the vulnerability in her character. She's equally good as Putana, Annabella's nurse, who is complicit in her master's incestuous affair. The goofy Michael Nathanson is a memorably comic Bergetto, a dim-witted and self-centered suitor who is only too glad to be rejected by Annabella so he can pursue another, more humble mistress.
Director Jonathan Barsness stages the show fairly well, particularly succeeding in tension in the scenes between Annabella and Soranzo and between the two sibling-lovers. His only missteps – a few too many scenes are played in profile and a sex scene staged on the floor, where the action is difficult to see – are mitigated by the brilliant twist he cooks up for the final moments of the play. Strange miracle of justice, indeed!
The costumes, designed by Jennifer Paar, are lovely. Giovanni's striped sweater and jeans are perfectly complemented by Annabella's color-coordinated Catholic school-girl outfit, while Soranzo cuts a handsome, wealthy figure in a gorgeous blue and paisley robe. Bergetto's improbably bright outfits are standouts and immediately define his character.
The handsome and functional set design by Gian Marco Lo Forte also deserves a nod: 'Tis a Pity... is performed in a simple, three sided black box created from one black curtain and two purple walls with black wainscoting. Two long, table-height cubes pull out from the walls for fairly quick transitions and allow for a surprising number of different set configurations. The blood-red chandelier which hangs center stage is a particularly nice touch.
The lighting design by Simon Cleveland is attractive, though there were a few scenes when the center of the stage was notably in shadow. The live music, provided by Colonna Sonora (Brady Bagger, James Sparber, and Christian Serramalera), is a welcome and pleasing addition to the show. Despite the occasional flaw, Toy Box Theatre Company's production of 'Tis a Pity ... would be a pity to miss.