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'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

A major test of any classic stage work is how well it survives new interpretations. If the director and actors don't change the text, but present the original work in an entirely new staging concept, will the original points come across?

'Tis Pity She's a Whore is, indeed, a classic play. Written by John Ford in the 1630s, it tells the shocking story of a truly forbidden love, specifically, that of Giovanni for his sister Annabella. The story covers the ground you can expect - and even takes something of a surprise twist near its conclusion - but does so with care and integrity. This is a highly emotional and well written work that explores many facets of its somewhat distasteful subject matter.

But the new staging of the play by the Women's Shakespeare Company is certainly one that pushes the very limits of the play, forcing the quality of its writing and centuries of interpretation to be examined and tested at every turn.

The changes wrought on the production are easy to identify if not explain: it's being performed in a nightclub (Speeed) with a rock score. Is it a bad idea? Maybe not, if the conceits really add to the audience's understanding of the play or bring forth new meaning in the text. This production does absolutely nothing of the kind.

Actually, in the hands of director, adapter, and lyricist R.J. Tolan, each of the women in the cast is dressed as a woman, in varying frightening degrees of leather (by Garo Sparo and Becky Hubert). The script takes a back seat to the nightmare world of the presentation: The world of Tolan's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is a rock world, complete with throbbing music and black light, where, socially and sexually, anything goes.

It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't play. The changes seem to have been added merely to shock, with Ford's original merely reduced and interspersed with musical numbers; the show was hardly re-conceived from the ground up to make the show a musical, singer-actors and onstage band aside. The musical numbers serve to comment on the action rather than advance it, which works early in the show, until the novelty wears off.

Despite some nice music composed by P.J. Cacioppo, there's little depth to the music beyond its volume; the effect on your ear drums is one of the few things that will remain with you after leaving Speeed. The music, heavily steeped in punk, is painfully loud, rendering most of the lyrics unintelligible, and given the few lyrics I was able to make out, this is probably a good thing.

The actors are highly willing, though, and each works very hard, mostly to little avail, generally being as quiet speaking as they are over-amplified when singing. Lisa Raymond and Jaime Andrews as the brother and sister are about the only two performers who bring much color to their roles, but even they're made insignificant in the overall production. If they do more to communicate the story than anyone else, it's by little more than coincidence.

As problematic as this production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is, it demonstrates the pitfalls present in adapting any work to a modern setting. Changes work best when the original work is allowed to speak for itself, but here, it can barely be heard above the music.

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Women's Shakespeare Company
'Tis Pity She's a Whore
Speeed
20 West 39th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues
Tickets: (212)501-1986