The bloody half of my semester’s-end theater treat was Red Bull’s Tis Pity last night, back in the company’s old haunts at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street. Nothing like a high-spirited incest tragedy to send me off onto dark highways heading home. I’m feeling a bit sentimental, not to mention tired, today. Classes are over, spring and all is here – heart on my sleeve, perhaps, or on a knife’s point, take your pick…
The Red Bull Theater, one of my favorite local NYC companies, is dedicated to bringing (mostly) non-Shakespearean 17c plays to modern stages. John Ford’s gruesome send-up of Romeo and Juliet — let’s see what happens if we make them brother and sister?! — plays to the company’s strengths: clarity, forcefulness, a dazzlingly consistent and brilliant cast. It’s hard not to have a special appreciation for Everett Quinton, a stage veteran who was a mainstay at Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. In this show he played the oily Signor Donado, whose foppish son Bergetto, gleefully camped up by Ryan Garbayo, has no chance of getting the girl. But really the entire cast was fantastic. The assembled suitors of the lovely Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) were each distinct types: dashing Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan), foolish Bergetto, the violent soldier Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman).
The bloody heart of any production of this play is the incestuous couple, and here I was struck by the difference between Red Bull’s show and an excellent version of the play by London-based Cheek by Jowl that I saw at BAM in 2012. In the 2012 version, the set was all interior: we spent the night in Annabella’s bedroom. In Red Bull’s version, we were outside on the street, surrounded by corruption. The bed appeared from behind a stage recess for only two scenes: the couple’s first night together, and the scene in which Giovanni kills his sister before cutting out her heart and carrying with him on a bloody dagger up to the play’s end. Red Bull always works in and as a company, distributing our attention almost evenly around the busy stage. Their focus wasn’t only on the lovers.
That’s not to say that Amelia Pedlow’s Annabella and Matthew Amendt’s Giovanni weren’t compelling and disturbing. But for many scenes, especially early in the play, the central pair stood off to the side while Ford’s cartoonish Italy displayed its decadent wares. Giovanni especially seemed slightly less stage-filling than his rival suitors, though that’s perhaps because he only needed to woo for a few early scenes.
Cheek by Jowl’s production ended with Annabella’s ghost holding her brother’s hand, but that level of sentimental sympathy wasn’t the point in Red Bull’s version. A brilliant small-part turn by Rocco Sisto as the corrupt Cardinal who eagerly hoovered up money for the Pope’s coffers provided this production’s center. This play’s theatrical Italy was a social maze of greed and predation that chewed up any and all lovers. The Cardinal gleefully closed the play by pronouncing judgment on Annabella’s corpse:
Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store,
Who could not say, ‘tis pity she’s a whore?
Listening to Ford’s language, I kept hearing the special charge on certain words: heart, fate, lust, love. I was even more impressed this time around by the play itself, a dark meditation on and extension of Romeo and Juliet.
My favorite line was from Bergetto, with just the right mix of philosophy and farce
Time’s a blockhead. (3.5)
Go see it before it closes on May 16!