Nick Leshi

Nick Leshi
Bronx, New York, United States of America
December 13
Writer, actor, media professional, fan of entertainment, pop culture, and speculative fiction. Contact for more info.


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MARCH 30, 2012 9:05PM

A Review of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Rate: 3 Flag
It's always an adventure to go from my home in the Bronx to an event in Brooklyn, but Thursday night was one to remember -- thank you, overturned tractor trailer that forced the closing of all southbound lanes on the BQE! I was heading to BAM's Harvey Theater to see the acclaimed production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and I overcame the traffic nightmare due to my impressive patience and my trusty GPS. After a brutally long day at work and the stress of a New York City interborough commute, was it really such a good idea to see John Ford's controversial tragedy that still manages to shock audiences just as it did when it was first written in the early 1600s? The answer is a resounding yes! There is no better escape than live theater and this punk-attitude, modern-dress, high-voltage version of the drama did the job of entertaining and challenging its audience.

The Cheek by Jowl international company has created an outstanding version of the old play that still manages to spark debate all these centuries later -- the story about incestuous lust and love, vengeance-fueled murder and madness, continues to draw people to it. The inspired direction by Declan Donnellan and frenetic, pulse-pounding acting by the dynamic cast makes every moment an edge-of-your-seat experience. Ford's script has been molded into a taut and clever parable whose message (if any exists beyond the gratuitous sex, soap opera-style shenanigans, and Tarantinoesque killings) is that humanity's temptations and transgressions are as timeless and universal as ever.

Harvey Theater's magnificently rustic walls, with crumbling columns, ancient arches, and exposed bricks, would be impossible for any set-designers to re-create from scratch if they had to. It's almost a shame to renovate such beautiful antiquity, but BAM is having a capital fundraising Next Stage Campaign to restore the theater and other facilities. In the meantime, the look is perfect for shows like this, even with its more contemporary traditionally-made set -- a young woman's atmospherically-lit bedroom with posters of Gone with the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and of course True Blood painting a chronicle of romantic storytelling for our time.

Before the show even begins, as audience members are still walking to their seats, the female lead, young Annabella makes us all feel like voyeurs as we look at her in her red hoodie and headphones, sprawled on her bed, watching videos on her laptop computer. It quickly sets the tone for what is to come as characters look where they shouldn't look, say what they shouldn't say, do what they shouldn't do.

The show officially begins with a powerful dance number that quickly draws everyone in -- the whole cast acts as one pulsing entity. Throughout the intermissionless hour and 55 minutes, the actors dance and weave around each other, sharing the performance space together for most of the scenes in a naturally flowing choreographed movement that is often breathtaking to behold, making those moments when only one or two characters are on stage all the more dramatic.

Lydia Wilson has incredible stage presence as Annabella, the object of affection for not just a number of suitors but also her own brother. Every gesture she makes, every sound she utters, is tantalizing. She plays the role perfectly -- a dangerous girl with a joy for life that draws men to her who should know better. By the end, though, we weep for her vulnerability. 

Jack Gordon is excellent as her doomed brother Giovanni, whose carnal longings and irrational rationalizing take him down a deadly spiral of no return. Although it might not measure up to some of the better known soliloquys of William Shakespeare, his "Lost, I am lost" speech has become one of my favorites.

Although the play is about Annabella and Giovanni, I was particularly impressed by the character arc of Soranzo, played nicely by Jack Hawkins, and the marvelous surprises that Laurence Spellman brought to the role of Vasques.

In a play full of blood, it is revealing that the most chilling segments were the ones that only hinted at violence. It's always the suspenseful foreshadows that scare, repulse, and haunt our imaginations often moreso than the actual graphic depictions of ripped out tongues and hearts.

I have read John Ford's play many times, grappling with its dark themes and sometimes clunky plotting while revelling in its poetry and flawed characters who still manage to draw sympathy despite the horrific events that occur. Cheek by Jowl has created a version that magnifies the play's best parts while solving some of the problems of the text. While it's certainly not a feel-good-show, it entertains just as many other classic tragedies do. It exploits our emotions through titillation and shock value, but in the end, and most importantly, it makes you think.

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Good art is timeless.