Review: Jacobean sex and revenge, plus a punk cellist

Even after almost 400 years after its first performance, there is a problem with the title of John Ford's play. American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Carey Perloff, whose production of it opened Wednesday, took a direct approach. On signs and in the program, “WHORE” in capital letters is preceded by a smaller “'Tis Pity She's a…”

And so the show went, for nearly three hours, a head-on, in-your-face, blood-and-gore Jacobian revenge tragedy. Nothing was soft-pedaled; there were enough mysterious subplots to fill several episodes of “Lost.”

It's the right way to present a play built on brother-sister incest. “'Tis Pity” is a more solid and worthwhile production than A.C.T.'s other explorations of the period, John Webster's 1614 “The Duchess of Malfi” and the deliberately “shocking” homoerotic presentation of Christopher Marlowe's 1594 “Edward II.”

Perloff respects the genre: “Jacobean drama is very close, in some ways,to our contemporary experience. It grew out of a culture that was less moderate than Shakespeare's, more extreme. The church was exercising a very repressive influence, and so the rebellion against that was very strong. So this is a very sexy play, a very hot world.” (Ford's 1629 play technically falls in the “Caroline” period, named for King Charles I, 1625 to 1649.)

The incest has a Romeo-and-Juliet sense of two against the world, presented with lyricism and convincing passion by Michael Hayden (Giovanni) and René Augesen (Annabella, for whom the play's title is the closing eulogy).

Perloff surrounds them with an outstanding cast: Robert Sicular as their father, Steven Anthony Jones as Friar Bonaventura, Michael Earle Fajardo as Soranzo, Annabella’s husband, Anthony Fusco as his Iago-like servant, along with Gregory Wallace, Sharon Lockwood, James Carpenter and Jack Willis.

The large cast is on a big stage. Walt Spangler's abstract, beaded scenery mysteriously invokes 17th-century Parma, Italy. There are perhaps too many stairs, but the backdrops, Candice Donnelly's costumes and Robert Wierzel's lighting provide a surprisingly appropriate setting.

The single “modernizing” directorial touch is a double-edged sword: Perloff has a composer-vocalist-“punk cellist” Bonfire Madigan Shive on a platform above the stage, providing musical accompaniment.

The good comes early, with sedate background cello sounds; the bad takes over as sounds turn into “music” not worth the name, and then culminates in Shive shrieking through an already over-dramatic scene, diverting attention, adding a touch of the ridiculous to the tragic. The high, and low, points of Ford's tragic excesses need a counterpoint, not attempts to outdo them.

IF YOU GO

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Where: American Consveratory Theater, 415 Geary St.,San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; closes July 6

Tickets: $17 to $82

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org  

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