Geneva Anderson digs into art

Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company Tackles a new adaptation of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” through June 29, 2013 at EXIT Stage Left, San Francisco

“Tis A Pity She’s A Whore,” a world premiere adaptation by Oren Stevens, transplants John Ford’s infamous classic to Kennedy-era America.  Directed by Ariel Craft, at San Francisco’s Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre through Saturday, June 29, 2013.

“Tis A Pity She’s A Whore,” a world premiere adaptation by Oren Stevens, transplants John Ford’s infamous classic to Kennedy-era America. Directed by Ariel Craft, at San Francisco’s Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre through Saturday, June 29, 2013.

It would have been easy to miss Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co’s (BtaBB) world premiere of Oren Stevens’ adaptation of  ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in the Tenderloin’s EXIT Stage Left Theatre last Friday because almost everything about the production was scarcely bigger than a bread box, except for its energy and soul.  Wake up call for me, who regularly attends and reviews the larger theatre company productions—there’s incredible core of talent out there that is young, strong, collaborative, constantly adapting to opportunities, and so worthy.

Ariel Craft, 24, a former A.C.T. Artistic Fellow, founded Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co. a year ago.  Shortly thereafter, she contacted her young friend, the playwright and director Oren Stevens, who grew up in Lafayette and learned his craft at Yale, to write an adaptation of John Ford’s 1633 drama, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore Pity.  The play’s uncondemning treatment of incest was controversial from its first performance and Stevens’ interventions have quickened the pace of the story while keeping it every bit as arresting.  In addition to a sensitive reworking of the story, Stevens displays a wonderful ear for language. His adaptation managed to make the play sound old but come across as crystal clear and quite colloquial—like the very best modern productions of Shakespeare.

One of the charms of this bare bones production is that, with no set to speak of, it all depends on the strength of the acting.  Justin Gillman was particularly engrossing as Giovanni (imagine a grubby Niles Crane) whose amorous feelings for his sister Annabella (Maria Leigh) lead to a brutal and bloody climax.  The scheming that goes on behind the two siblings and their forbidden love is remarkable.  The seemingly hum-drum  household conceals a world of deception and manipulation— betrayals, rival lovers competing for Annabella’s hand, and ultimately murder.  The siblings’ hypocritical mother, Floria (Cat Luedtke) has chosen the wealthy nobleman Sorzano to be her daughter’s mate and doesn’t care about her daughter’s wants.  Scorned Hippolita (scene stealer Allison Hunter Blackwell) seethes with passion and jealousy, whereas Annabella’s maid/nurse Putana (Jeunee Simon) plays the innocent but then quickly gives up the secret of the paternity of Annabella’s child and shows that she’s a master at household politics and landing on her feet.  Sam Tillis is spellbinding as Vasques, the cunning servant of Annabella’s eventual husband, Sorzano (Peter Townley).

The core of this drama emerges with the pregnancy—a joyless, shameful disaster that is punctuated with dramatic bursts of violence that had audience members gasping and cringing.  On Friday, Maria Leigh delivered a fascinating Annabella…I didn’t care for the self-indulged young woman who opened the play tossing love letters from potential suitors around like yesterday’s recycling.  I liked her even less as an expectant mother who didn’t have a protective instinct in her body.  Like her or not, a spirited young woman, who initially seemed to have the world at her feet, was shown to be extremely vulnerable in a society dominated by men.  For days, I was provoked to think long and deep about motherhood and the very modern familial issues surrounding an unexpected child.

Ariel Craft already shows a precocious ability to get her actors to deliver nuanced and emotionally riveting performances.  Her highly original production packages Ford’s disturbing drama within some of the fluffiest tropes of teen love movies of the 1960s. These are beautifully and sometimes comically evoked through original ballads and do-wop-style songs of San Francisco composer David Brown, which are nicely sung by the talented cast.

More from Ariel Craft —Theater is a place for exploration of the impulses which have no place in the daylight of our society, those which we usually don’t allow ourselves emotional space for: the instincts that we’re afraid of and that, if unpacked in our day-to-day lives, would yield catastrophic results. I can think of few plays better suited for this kind of exploration than ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which was massively controversial when written and still remains so almost 400 years later.

We made the decision to modernize in hopes of avoiding dismissal of the subject matter because it was a “different time.”  I, for one, make a lot of behavioral allowances for any action which happens in a time that I don’t feel I have a cultural reference point for.  I’m very quick to accept incest and murder in the 1600s as a given, in a way that I’m not in the 1960s. Why the 1960s specifically? There is something fruitful—I think—for the play in the bridge between the 1950s and the 1960s, the loss of innocence, the beginning of a sexual revolution.

Oren Stevens on his adaptation:  Ariel Craft and John Ford accidentally tricked me into doing this show. Ariel’s part was easy; all she had to do was ask for a light adaptation, and that’s exactly what I agreed to do.  I thought I would cut a few characters, streamline some language, and call it a day. Then I met John Ford’s play, which is this dense, meaty masterpiece dripping with scheming, passion, and violence.  Before long, I was having so much fun unraveling and discovering this story that I found I was doing a massive (or, as I say in the script, ruthless) adaptation. Through some fantastic conversations with Ariel, we recrafted Ford’s plot-driven spectacle of blood to be driven by the characters that inhabit the it.  Their desires, rather than their actions, were given the forefront. We ended up discovering the play bit by bit, through scattered sidebars after other meetings, or four AM revelatory text messages, and each new piece was a thrilling discovery; every moment of working on this play was exciting. Ariel and John tricked me into doing this show, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Run-time: 95 minutes with no intermission

Creative Team:  Adapted by Oren Stevens, Directed by Ariel Craft, Scenic Design by Joshua Saulpaw, Costume Design by Emily White, Lighting Design by William Campbell,
Original Compositions and Music Direction by David Brown, Verse Coaching by Jesse Brownstein, Fight Choreography by Will Springhorn, Jr., Stage Managed by Sana Yamaguchi

Performed by: Allison Hunter Blackwell (Hippolita), Alisha Ehrlich (Philotis), Justin Gillman (Giovanni), Maria Leigh (Annabella), Cat Luedtke (Floria), Lisa-Marie Newton (Sister Margaret Cortona), Jeunee Simon (Putana), Sam Tillis (Vasques), Peter Townley (Soranzo)

Details: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore closes Saturday June 29, 2013.  EXIT Stage Left is located at 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco.  All performances are sold-out.  For more information on Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre, click here.

June 27, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment