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‘Tis a pity poor directing overshadows strong performances

Giovanni (Robert Hansen) gives into his feeling for his sister Annabella (Callie Heyer) in Studio 301's production of "'Tis Pity She's a Whore." Daniel Leighton/Courtesy photo

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From page A7 | February 20, 2013 |

Check it out
What: ” ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”
Where: Science Lab Building Lecture Hall, UC Davis
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $5
Information: 530-752-1915

I find myself on the horns of a dilemma about Studio 301’s production of “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” playing at the UC Davis Science and Lecture Hall on Hutchison Drive.

While the performers were — for the most part — quite good, it was perhaps the directorial decisions of Mitchell van Landingham and the rudeness of the audience — who are always prone in these student-run productions to laugh at their friends on stage — that turned this tragedy of incest, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, betrayal, depravity, murder and dismemberment into a rollicking comedy.

It’s not that the humor wasn’t fun, but I don’t think this is what playwright John Ford, who wrote this 17th century classic, had in mind.

There were several confusing things about this production. For one thing, it is set in “Parma, Oklahoma” though Shakespearean-type English is spoken throughout. The set consists of a long clothesline that spans the stage and is hung with sheets and underwear, though absolutely nothing is made of the clothesline and it appears only to separate the audience from “backstage,” and perhaps give the effect of a trailer trash-type environment, which makes the very proper English even more incongruous.

However, the settings are provided by photographs projected on the back wall, everything from a typical Midwestern home, to something looking more like a mansion one might find in Europe, to a brick-lined street that certainly would not be found in Oklahoma (especially since one of the businesses on the street has the word “Wharf” in its name). With the plethora of photographs available on the Internet, certainly something vaguely coherent could have been chosen.

I understand the challenges provided by a very small budget, and there is nothing wrong (nor innovative) about setting a classic piece in modern times, but nothing went together logically in this production and the total effect was jarring.

At the start of the play, Giovanni (Robert Hansen) is confessing his sexual feelings for his sister Annabella (Callie Heyer) with his tutor, Friar Bonaventura (Sarah Cohen), who tries to convince him that these are evil feelings that should be suppressed. Cohen does an excellent job in this pants role and is passionate as the moral voice of the piece … until the Friar himself succumbs to the temptations of the flesh.

Giovanni, unable to suppress his feelings, confesses them to his sister, who in turn confesses her own love for him and in short order, with the encouragement of the girl’s tutor Putana (Wendy Wyatt Mair) — “What though he be your brother? Your brother’s a man, I hope; and I say still, if a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take any body, father or brother, all is one.” — they consummate their relationship.

Sadly, there is little to no chemistry between these two characters, and when Giovanni first kisses his sister it is with all the passion he might have given to his great-grandmother. In what should be a very erotic scene, we get nothing, and whatever true passion there might be all apparently occurs behind the clothesline.

When Annabella finds herself pregnant, she agrees to marry Soranzo, a nobleman (Skylar Collins). Soranzo is indeed noble, though turns abusive when he discovers he’s been duped.

His servant Vasquez, as performed by Marcos Sastre III, may be the strongest character in the show. Sastre is flamboyant and chews scenery deliciously.

The pregnancy and marriage set off a series of escalating bloodshed and tragedies which, as presented by Studio 301, continue to inspire giggles and guffaws from the audience. This is not really helped by the fact that the fatal knife work at the end of the play seems to have been accomplished by a number of Boy Scout knives.

Strong performances are given by Ting Jung Lee, as Hippolita, Sastre’s rejected lover, and Alyssa Parsons, as Florio, the siblings’ mother.

If director van Landingham intended to make light of Ford’s tragedy, he succeeded, and the result was enjoyed by the audience, though I suspect the playwright would not have approved.

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