The Incest Rep: Tis Pity She’s a Whore at Brave Spirits Theatre

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Let’s face it: Parma is a nasty, nasty place. It’s got people cheating on their spouses, and plots of revenge, even before it gets all incesty. Which, of course, it does, this being part of Brave Spirits’ Incest Rep, along with A King and No King, by Beaumont and Fletcher. Those Jacobeans liked their plays dark, and that’s perfect to help Brave Spirits’ pledge of “Verse and Violence”.

Amanda N. Gunther

The most available bachelorette in Parma is the beautiful Annabella, played with wit and intelligence by Jenna Berk. She’s got three suitors already: the dark, dangerous Grimaldi (Erik Harrison), the wealthy, scary Soranzo (Ian Blackwell Rogers), and the feckless dolt Bergetto. 

Actually, Bergetto (Brendan Edward Kennedy) probably doesn’t really care whether he gets Annabella or not: he just wants to suck on lollipops and hang out with his even-more-doltish servant Poggio (Alison Talvacchio). Bergetto is pushed towards Annabella by his aunt Donada, played by Lisa Hill-Corley, who looks on their antics with a perfect combination of long-suffering patience and grim amusement. Talvacchio and Kennedy have incredible comic chemistry together, which makes Bergetto’s untimely death at the hands of Grimaldi utterly heart-rending. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Someone slips into Annabella’s bed ahead of all three lovers… and it’s her brother Giovanni (Danny Cackley). (You wanted a spoiler alert? It says “Incest Rep” right on the front of the program.) Giovanni puts up a brief resistance to the idea, begging Friar Bonaventura (Harrison again, rather less menacing than he is as Grimaldi, but certainly no saint) for permission. It is not, of course, granted, but the devious Giovanni isn’t going to let that stop him. “I have asked council of the holy church, who tells me I may love you,” he equivocates to Annabella. Berk’s Annabella is surely bright enough to see through such a clumsy half-truth, but no matter: her passion for Giovanni is very, very real. And quickly consummated.

Jenna Berk as Annabella and Danny Cackley as Giovanni.Claire Kimball
Jenna Berk as Annabella and Danny Cackley as Giovanni.

That pleases the heck out of her tutor Putana… as you can guess from her name. Kathryn Zoerb is lusty and zesty as Putana, who encourages and aids the lovers. Zoerb’s Putana is a striking contrast with her other role as the sweet, dimwitted Philotis, who falls for the equally dim Bergetto. Zoerb and Kennedy are charming together, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when… well, you know. (Kennedy also plays the Cardinal, as dour as his Bergetto was flighty. Director Charlene V. Smith has set Harrison, Zoerb, and Kennedy a high bar in playing diametrically opposed characters, and they sail right over it in style.)

Philotis is town with her uncle Richardetto… and you’re gonna have to hang with me here: the plot gets convoluted, and we haven’t even gotten to the real tragedy yet. Gary Dubreil’s Richardetto left Parma a while back, and they don’t recognize him in his fake beard. Richardetto is in town for revenge: his wife Hippolyta had an affair with Soranzo.

Rebecca Ellis’ Hippolyta has also recently come back into town: with her flaming hair and smoky eyes she’s going to burn Soranzo up. In aid of this she enlists Vasquez (the always brilliant Briana Manente), servant to Soranzo. In a demented way, Vasquez is the hero of the piece, cutting a swath of blood, which Manente plays with glee and passion.

And thus we reach the real crux of the piece: Soranzo wants Annabella, and Annabella needs Soranzo to cover up the increasingly obvious consequences of her incestuous affair. Rogers’ Soranzo is brilliantly oily, easily slipping back and forth between what seems like genuine affection and breathtaking cruelty. Vasquez uncovers the affair… and it’s not going to end well for anybody. Except Vasquez. 

Erik Harrison as the Friar and Danny Cackley as Giovanni.Claire Kimball
Erik Harrison as the Friar and Danny Cackley as Giovanni.

Parma is going to be a ghost town before it’s all over, and that’s just the way director Charlene V. Smith likes it. She has a sharp eye for the verse and violence: her actors are all magnificently trained vocal talents, of who Cackley is a standout among those standouts, and as fight captain he leads the cast in spectacular execution of Casey Kaleba’s fight direction. He’s also their blood director, and there’s plenty of that. Brave Spirits loves the contrast of the highest verse and the most brutal murder (and mutilation… don’t forget mutilation.)

Their space is spare, but well-appointed. Smith uses both the floor and the platform of her alleyway staging to continually up the tension. Although there was audience on both sides, the blocking always felt natural and never upstaged. The stage is decorated with art by Leila Spolter, ghostly forms of metallic netting and chicken wire. Lighting designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke doesn’t have a lot of instruments to work with, but he uses color magnificently, a continually shifting palette of blues and stark whites. They show off Adalia Tonneyck’s spectacular work on the costumes, elegant black pieces with a whiff of cyberpunk. The costumes create a strong sense of character, as does the eye makeup: Zoerb’s eyeliner looks slutty as Putana and wide-eyed innocent as Philotis.

Tis Pity is a highlight of Jacobean theater, and right up Brave Spirits’ alley. It’s well-paced, solidly performed, and a feast for the eyes — and adrenal glands.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Tis Pity She’s a Whore plays in repertory with A King and No King through April 23, 2017 with Brave Spirits Theatre at The Lab at Convergence— 1819 N. Quaker Lane in Alexandria, VA. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.

To read Amanda N. Gunther’s review of A King and No King, click here.


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