With a title like that, John Ford’s play is bound to stick in your mind. It did mine: I’d never read it, but I’d never forgotten it since I first heard about it in college. When I saw that it was being produced by the Red Bull Theater company – a group that specializes in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama – I couldn’t pass it up.
I was stunned; it was phenomenal! The play is described as being like Romeo and Juliet, except that the star-crossed lovers happen to be brother and sister. If that sounds farfetched and over-the-top, well it’s just one of several aspects of this production that will raise your eyebrows and drop your jaw.
That said, it wasn’t the premise or the live nudity or the insanely (insanely!) violent ending that shocked me most (although each of those elements did make my eyes open widely). The most shocking aspect to me was that the dialogue was so easy to follow. I’m an English/Drama teacher, so I’ve read and watched my fair share of Shakespeare, and while I find it much easier to study than my students do thanks to a lifetime of being exposed to his language, his words are still very challenging. I’ve watched Shakespeare plays that I haven’t studied and followed along well enough, but having read the plays first seems to make for a richer experience. I thought it would be the same with ‘Tis Pity since it is also a Jacobean play (albeit later than Shakespeare’s works), but, on the contrary, I don’t think there was a single moment’s confusion.
Presumably I can interpret heightened language quicker than I could in the past. And truly, the actors were so good at their roles that their interpretations brought clarity that could have conceivably been lacking in the written dialogue.
But the bigger reason, I think, is that the work lacks the poetry and beauty of a Shakespeare play, a realization that was illuminating. I haven’t studied too many of Shakespeare’s peers, so it was fascinating to see how Ford’s play made Shakespeare’s genius more obvious. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVED IT! But I loved it because it was entertaining, dark, creepy, and sadistically self-indulgent. I love horror movies, too, for pretty much the same reasons, but Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t a smart Hitchcock thriller. And ‘Tis Pity isn’t Romeo and Juliet, or Macbeth, or Othello. Macbeth in particular could be just as bloody (or even more so, really), but the violence underscores the deeper thematic and philosophical issues. In ‘Tis Pity, even the most poetic moments (which tend to be defenses of incest) feel as gratuitous as the sex and violence and Catholic-bashing (by means of the deliciously morally-bankrupt cardinal). Shakespeare doesn’t usually stoop to the kinds of devices that Ford used. Ford, in modern parlance, “went there!” with regard to such issues as brotherf***ing and disemboweling in ways that are meant to be showy. I don’t really have a problem with gratuity in general because it’s usually entertaining and I tend to accept it as such, but it’s also what keeps good art from being great. The production was great, but the play itself is only good.
Still, if it hadn’t closed the week after I saw it, I would have definitely insisted you go. New York won’t see its like again for quite a few years. I’ll be paying close attention to the Red Bull Theater Company from this day on.