Excruciating Times

Preview of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Yale School of Drama

Jesse Rasmussen likes to think of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the 17th century play she will direct as her thesis production, as “the dirty little cousin of Romeo and Juliet.” As Rasmussen says, Ford “knows his Shakespeare” and would expect his audience to note the degree to which he is cribbing from the master: young “star-crossed lovers,” each with an adult confidante—a friar and a nurse, respectively. And a setting in Italy—though here it’s Parma, not Florence. And what might cause a bit more sensation—since baroque plays have a way of being rather provocative—than lovers who come from warring households? How about lovers who come from the same upper-middle-class household, who are, in fact, brother and sister?

The play was controversial in its day because of its sympathetic portrayal of incest—which might be one of the few romantic pairings that could be expected to inspire shock, even in our day. Rasmussen says the play “has a troubled production history” in modern times, with few commentators seeming to be pleased with what they’ve seen. Rasmussen saw one production in Australia, her native land, and read about two others. She found that the play “stuck in my craw” and if something sticks around like that, “you do it to get rid of it,” because that’s the only way.

Working through the text with her actors in rehearsal, Rasmussen has been considering two factors that have influenced her presentation of the play. On the one hand, the actors have found—to their surprise—how “juicy the language is to act. It’s cruder than Shakespeare, but it’s made to be played.” In other words, this is no closet drama text. The other factor Rasmussen has noted shares the view of Antonin Artaud who, is his famed manifesto on the Theater of Cruelty, mused that ‘Tis Pity might be staged without dialogue. What this means in practice is that Rasmussen has made many dramatic cuts to the script—which would otherwise play for upwards of three hours “at least”—in what she described as a choice of “bodies and physical action over text.” The show also adds music and the most fully developed use of projection design—including live feed—she has worked with thus far.

 Jesse Rasmussen

Jesse Rasmussen

One of the aspects that made the play stay in Rasmussen’s mind, she said, is its “fascinating mystery,” as a provocation to audiences, and to players and directors. As director, her task is to “temper the experience” so that the audience does not feel itself “assaulted” by “the utterly brutal society” portrayed, which is “horrifyingly misogynist” and visits “excruciating trauma upon the women in the play.” In addition to Annabella, sister/lover of Giovanni, and the “whore” of the title, there is a revenge plot involving Hippolita’s hatred of her former lover Soranzo, the most likely candidate for Annabella’s hand.

The Church, which should be the absolute arbiter of vice and virtue, is shown as having no moral authority because it is corrupt, and “buyable.” The “loveliest thing in this culture,” according to Rasmussen, is the “beautiful poetry between Annabella and Giovanni” which is “gorgeous but poisonous.”

The play will be staged in contemporary clothing, though perhaps with baroque elements, and the audience will be seated on the stage of the University Theater. This variant, which I’ve seen done in two other thesis shows, adds a memorable intimacy to the production while also permitting the full use of the many stage-craft elements available at the UT.

In considering what it might mean to put her own stamp on the play, Rasmussen spoke of wanting to “flesh the text out into a fully inhabited, textured world.” She spoke of “chasing terror and violence to find beauty” and, while calling the play “ugly and dark,” Rasmussen, a “film buff,” likened its power to Martin Scorsese’s celebrated Raging Bull, which is both a harsh and violent film but also a beautiful one. Her task is to register the beauty and the violence of Ford’s play, while also creating “more focus” on the role of Annabella, who is “anything but a classical whore” and is in fact “a complex, fascinating heroine,” as a scapegoat (“lock her up!”) of this vicious society. Annabella hopes to find in love with her brother Giovanni a sort of narcissistic withdrawal from the dark and debased world they live in. Incest, in Rasmussen’s view, makes the insular nature of their love—and its flaunting of one of the few mores the play’s appalling world recognizes—all the more doomed.

Rasmussen, who staged very tellingly Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love at last year’s Summer Cabaret, seems drawn to incestuous dysfunction among ruling or upper-class families, and, certainly to violence and cruelty as elements of theater, elements that are perhaps alarmingly suitable to our time of histrionic hyperbole, wild invective, and shamefully debased public discourse. When the codes are broken, go for baroque.

 

'Tis Pity She’s a Whore
By John Ford
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen
Yale School of Drama
January 31-February 4, 2017