Theater Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, Adapted by Toy Box Theatre Company

‘Tis Pity She's a Whore, John Ford's blood-spattered incest/revenge drama from about 1630, certainly made an impression on me when I studied it in Professor Marjorie Garber's "Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama" class back in college – more, I think, for the graphic violence and gore than for the brother-sister love story. But over a quarter-century later I had yet to see a stage production of the once-banned, ever controversial play. So kudos to the Toy Box Theatre Company for its expert new production of this under-appreciated classic.

As befits the tiny stage of Teatro Iati, both cast and script have been reduced. Director Jonathan Barsness and his artistic team have cut an entire subplot, causing minor but noticeable injury to the play. On top of that, of the remaining characters, several actors play more than one, though quite deftly. Ford's humor, however, along with his audacious story and effervescent language, survive well. This is in just about every way a fit and flowing staging, thanks to superb direction, an ace production team, and a fine cast.

Ford doesn't tiptoe around his taboo subject. As the play opens, Giovanni, an intense young scholar and nobleman – fairly mild-mannered, as played by Andrew Krug – has just confessed his ardent love for his sister Annabella (Jessica Rothenberg) to the Friar (a very good Ron Bopst), his friend and former teacher. The shocked holy man counsels restraint and prayer, but Giovanni can't contain himself, goes home, and pleads his love. Annabella, though shocked as well, has, as it turns out, been harboring reciprocal feelings, and after much hesitation, they consummate. Mr. Krug and Ms. Rothenberg enact this pain-wracked yet joyful scene – one of the most stunning in English literature – with smoldering sensitivity and exquisite passion; I felt privileged to be in the theater, in their presence, at that moment.

If you're thinking to yourself, No good can come of this, congratulations. Annabella has a number of legitimate suitors, among whom her wealthy father Florio (Zenon Zeleniuch) is seeking to make the best choice, subject to Annabella's own preference (little does he know what that really is). Though he dallies with his friend Donado's (Mr. Bopst again) silly and foppish nephew Bergetto (the wonderful Michael Nathanson), he ultimately prefers the self-confident young nobleman Soranzo (the excellent, poised John Buxton). Bergetto, for his part, is too foolish and wayward to even woo properly, quite happy to divert his attentions to another young woman when one presents herself. This element of the story is one of the small, incompletely sutured wounds left by the cutting of the subplot. Fortunately, though, we get plenty of Bergetto, through whom Mr. Nathanson provides the play's comic relief in spades. His death scene is delightful.

Sarah Hankins, in a fine dual performance, actually gets two death scenes. She is the vampish Hippolita, the very model of the vengeful woman scorned (by Soranzo). She is also Annabella's tutor and confidante, Putana, who, in this version, is simply strangled rather than having her eyes gouged out. This change wasn't made to reduce the gore quotient; it's another artifact of the cuts that have been made in the text. Ms. Hankins dies fabulously both times, however. We are not cheated of her talents.

Just as Ms. Hankins easily negotiates two very different characters, the cast smoothly navigates Gian Marco Lo Forte's handsome, compressed but functional set (and manipulates it handily during the many scene changes). The production is a master class in efficient technical operations. The live three-man band, under the direction of the hirsute yet nimble bassist James Sparber and collectively known as Colonna Sonora, enhances the play's romantic, dark, and tragic moods with creepy and dramatic rock music, alternately insistent and haunting.

But the big discovery here is Ms. Rothenberg. With a scant New York resume, she is a product of Boston University's Conservatory Program, which has given us Michael Chiklis, Julianne Moore, Geena Davis, and Jason Alexander. After her spellbinding performance in this tricky and probably exhausting role, one imagines a similarly shining career for this newcomer. She is as beautiful as she is talented, and while in some roles that might be a distraction, here it adds a dimension, as one can easily identify with Giovanni's ardor. Yet through body language and makeup she transforms, heartbreakingly, into an ashen moral wreck, as the Friar's prediction – "death waits on thy lust – nears fulfillment.

Mr. Krug, for his part, while very good in the run-up, and very facile with the high-toned language of his flowery speeches, displays a certain lack of gravitas as the violent climax approaches. Hence his vengefulness feels less fully justified than the motives of the others. As a result, the violent, climactic scene seems oddly antiseptic – a bit of a let-down after the romance and humor and tension and darkness of the play to that point.

In the scheme of things, though, the production's flaws are vastly outweighed by its virtues. In fact, it's a must-see. ‘Tis Pity She's a Whore runs through Oct. 16 at Teatro Iati, 64 E. 4th St. Visit the Toy Box Theatre website for tickets.

Photo credits: 1) Teresa Olson. 2) Toy Box Theatre Company.