John Ford's 1630 revenge play, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, rages with enough blood, lust, and retribution to make the dictator of a small Third World nation look like a saint. Poison flows, siblings have sex, and a sweet old lady forfeits her eyes to the sharp end of a poker. Yet none of the horror up to that point prepares us for what happens in the play's final, ghastly scene when the protagonist, delirious with anger, turns up at an enemy's birthday party with his dead sister's heart skewered on the end of his murderous dagger.
Subtle it certainly ain't. But the power of this gory moment cannot be underestimated. It's the culmination of a melodramatic plot that follows the disastrous fallout of an illicit sexual union between a wealthy Italian citizen's son (Giovanni) and daughter (Annabella). Their incestuous relationship leads to pregnancy, whereupon the mother-to-be reluctantly enters a marriage of convenience with the rakish nobleman Soranzo. As Annabella's belly grows, so does the dramatic tension, until Giovanni's vengeful act of fratricide and final snarling entrance with the aforementioned bloody stage prop pushes the action over the precipice toward the final moments of hysterical bloodshed.
It's hard to imagine a more visceral visual metaphor for the scarred fiefdom of Parma — a city ruled by passion and violence and completely devoid of reason and humanity — than the desperate brother holding aloft his sister-lover's knifed heart. The image not only represents the corruption and betrayal that festers at the core of the society depicted in the play, but it also stands for the extreme nature of the central relationship between Giovanni and Annabella. The siblings are deeply in love. And yet, like Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet (to whom the characters in Ford's play are often compared), their passion is forbidden by law. But they follow their hearts, even though the sword awaits. The pulsing human organ on the end of Giovanni's dagger pretty much sums up the point of the entire play.
So when Michael Hayden made his final entrance the other evening as Giovanni in American Conservatory Theater's (ACT) new production of 'Tis Pity, suitably bug-eyed and covered in blood but sans throbbing kebab, my first thought was that there had been some kind of backstage bungle forcing him to appear for his final big scene without the crucial prop. However, it seems director Carey Perloff intended this heartless digression from Ford's stage directions. "As I rehearsed the play, I spent a great deal of time pondering what might give a contemporary audience the same kind of visceral shock that perhaps Ford's audience first felt in seeing a bleeding heart on a dagger," she explained via e-mail. "In our post-Braveheart world, that kind of effect is usually laughable, which is the last thing one wants at that moment in the play."
From Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus to Tracy Letts' Killer Joe, theater history is riddled with lurid scenes crafted primarily for shock value. When fumblingly staged, these gore-splattered happenings can easily induce guffaws, as Perloff suggests. Sometimes, however, the onstage brutality is meant to serve an important metaphorical purpose beyond being merely repulsive. Just as it's impossible to imagine the condemnatory social message in Edward Bond's Saved coming across fully without putting the audience through the cruelty of watching a baby being stoned in its stroller, so Ford rubs our noses in his fleshpit of violent emotions with the image of the skewered heart.
'Tis pity Perloff has so little faith in the playwright's sense of the theatrical — not to mention her own powers as a director. Even in our post-Braveheart world, who wouldn't be shocked by a director's decision to replace the skewered heart with, say, a bloodied fetus? Thankfully, Perloff doesn't try to outdo Ford on the Grand Guignol front, choosing instead to focus on the grisly but less symbolically arresting business of Giovanni "plowing up" Annabella's womb. He stabs his sister in her pregnant belly and enters the next scene in a blood-spattered shirt, waving a knife. But without the heart of his forbidden lover, the moment simply doesn't carry the brute visual force of the scripted stage directions. Blood-curdling screams and atonal scrapes from live cellist Bonfire Madigan Shive fail to make up for its nonappearance.
Perloff's neutered exploration of Ford's play still manages to be visually captivating. Chief among the production's high points is Walt Spangler's eloquent scenic design. The immense, stalactitelike organ pipes above the stage, the symmetrical staircases, and the cavernous, candlelit atmosphere suggest both a great baroque cathedral and a womb. Meanwhile, the beaded curtains and translucent plastic strips at the back of the stage and the secluded corners under the stairways bring a brothel to mind, especially as lit by Robert Wierzel's lurid lightscape. The contrast between sacred and profane, old and new, and birth and death embodied by the production's design elements brings the drama's themes sharply into focus.
Yet Ford's play is first and foremost a drama of extremes. The production's greatest flaw is its unwillingness to push the work's ferocious limits. With its reliance on short, character-driven leitmotifs, Shive's repetitive cello playing mostly appears to amplify the emotional content of the actors' exchanges. But because their solid yet unexceptional performances are unfortunately more memorable for their wavering mid-Atlantic-pseudo-BBC accents than their ingenuity, our pulses very rarely rise.
Instead of doubting the audience's ability to embrace the radical in Ford's text in a "post-Braveheart world," Perloff might have sought inspiration from Braveheart himself, William Wallace. As comfortable wearing his heart on his sleeve as spearing his enemy's on a spike, the bold Scottish hero (at least as Hollywood and Mel Gibson would have it) didn't shy away from extremes of passion and violence. "They may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!" he says in one of the film's most Oscar-grabbing moments. You can almost imagine Giovanni saying these words to Annabella as he thrusts his dagger into her breast.