Posted on: Friday, December 12, 2003

'Pity' tugs on your heart, as well as other organs

By Joseph T. Rosmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic

Norman Munoz is Vasquez and Danel Verdugo plays Hippolita in "'Tis Pity She's a Whore."

Andrew Shimabuku

' 'Tis Pity She's a Whore'

University of Hawai'i-Manoa

8 p.m. today and tomorrow;

2 p.m. Sunday



Congratulations to director Dennis Carroll and his adventurous student cast at the University of Hawai'i for making an obscure post-Shakespearean play accessible to a contemporary audience.

Why you would want to go there is another question.

John Ford's "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" was written in the 1620s. It's packed with violence, sex and moralizing, but lacks the Shakespearean genius to elevate those themes to the level of enduring literature. The play is best grouped with lesser Shakespeare works, which add historical and literary insights, but remain among the side waters of Western thought.

The remarkable success of the UH production is that Carroll has found the right links to connect the material with a modern audience across nearly 500 years of history. Most of those links are unsavory and not for the faint-hearted.

The central issue is brother-sister incest, which persists even after she becomes pregnant by her brother and marries another man.

Part of the audience appeal is that the actors in this triangle look good with their clothes off. A benefit of the contemporary costuming is that they can get them off quickly, without the nuisance of all those farthingales, doublets, buttons and ruffles.

Expanding on the sexual theme, most of the supporting characters are similarly motivated. So, if the arcane dialogue becomes dreary, categorizing the sex acts — simulated or implied — will surely hold your attention.

The production's second strong card is its eye-popping violence, both purposeful and random. Street toughs with chains and knives jump the unsuspecting and unprepared. Characters are beaten, stabbed, blinded, poisoned, and butchered, trumping the closing scene in "Hamlet" by littering the stage not only with bodies, but with organs.

A pair of altar boys playing catch with a still-warm human heart and a poisoned woman crawling across a banquet table, scattering china and crystal as she delivers her death speech, are two of the strongest images.

All this sensationalism would offend, if it were merely gratuitous. In Carroll's staging, it serves the purpose of underscoring the darkly amoral forces that drive the central action. The staging choices hold a mirror up to humanity's dark side and, as part of that dark side, they arouse and titillate.

Some of the staging provokes nervous laughter among the primarily college-aged audience: a homosexual kiss between the Cardinal and the Friar, some off-handed fellatio, or unexpected passionate groping.

The action is staged on Joseph Dodd's expansive set, suggestive of a town square surrounded by alcoves and balconies. An elevated throne for the Cardinal balances an overscaled bed. Galvanized crosses are grouped like industrial scaffolding. Naked mannequins populate the fringes, and dominating colors are black, red, and white.

In a production so driven by style, it shouldn't be assumed that performance takes second place. The student cast holds up against these strong images with disciplined articulation that gives clarity to the words, the meaning, and the emotions in the text.

The central players, Jonathan Egged and Cindy Davis as the brother and sister and Steven Hemmann as the tortured young husband, excellently handle the dialogue while projecting the necessary strong physicality of their characters.

The final effect is brutally stunning, arising from a thoughtful, daring, and imaginative interpretation of the text.

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