Love Me or Kill Me, Sister
Amelia Pedlow, Franchelle Stewart Dorn and Matthew Amendt in a scene from Red Bull Theater's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (photo by Richard Termine)
OVER THE COURSE of its eleven seasons, Red Bull Theater has sharply and elegantly stepped into the theatrical arena in New York as a champion of classical work. Artistic Director Jesse Berger stages their latest offering, John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the steamy 17th-century taboo love story, gingerly approaching it sans judgment. For a play that is seen as a centerpiece for Jacobean Tragedy, 'Tis Pity has been a long time coming for Red Bull.
The play, according to press notes, is a “heart-pounding tale of love, lust and hypocrisy is a deliciously perverse romantic tragedy. Siblings Annabella and Giovanni fall into an incestuous affair with a brutal velocity that sets Renaissance Parma aflame with its passionate force. Defiant in their desires to the bloody end, these lovers take ‘star-crossed' into a whole new galaxy.”
MICHAEL RAVER: What drew you to 'Tis Pity She’s a Whore?
JESSE BERGER: It’s sort of the greatest Jacobean play that wasn’t actually written in the Jacobean era. (Laughs) When I started Red Bull Theater, it was the play that people would assume we were doing first. I wanted to do it when I thought the company was ready to explore the play and at a time when I was passionate to do it. It’s so delicious. It’s a play about love. It is in love with so many of the other plays we know and love. It directly references Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello and some lesser known ones like The Duchess of Malfi and Tamburlaine. So in a way, its like going to a Greatest Hits of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. You get to see them all stirred together in a gumbo of Shakespearean tragedy. It’s really fun.
Director Jesse Berger
MR: I know directors usually cringe at this word, but can you talk about the concept?
JB: The play is about love and the way it can be perverted. It’s about who its okay to love. It’s about what happens when your passions run out of control or the bounds of reason and when they’re repressed. Obsession, too.
MR: And aesthetically?
JB: It’s a sexy/contemporary version of a Jacobean period piece. We’ve avoided talking about concept per se, but we did have to make choices about design. We’ve basically tried to have our cake and eat it too. We’re setting it in 1633, which is when the play was written. The costumes are jumping off from there, but we’re using very contemporary styles that are still in use today. The hope is that we’re going to achieve something that feels very contemporary but is also true to the period in which the play was written. Ford himself set this as a period play, in the 1300’s like Romeo and Juliet, so we’ve actually updated it to his time.
MR: How soon do start thinking about things like casting and cast size?
JB: Almost immediately, but most of those initial ideas ended up falling away. It’s impossible for me to read a play and not see certain actors in particular roles. Typically, I’ll keep mental lists and eventually those make it to paper lists. There were some people who I cast quite early who ended up moving on to other projects and then there are some who I cast quite early who are in the play.
Amelia Pedlow and Matthew Amendt in a scene from Red Bull Theater's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (photo by Richard Termine)
MR: Incest is threaded into the play. How did you approach that?
JB: The love that the brother and sister have for each other is sincere, so I take them at their word. I’m not judging it. Other characters judge it and have opinions about it. The sister actually changes her mind about, actually. Like Romeo and Juliet, society says it's bad but they don’t think that. Is it bad because society says so?
MR: How aware are you of the audience’s presentiment of what incest is?
JB: Ford sets it up right at the beginning of the play. It’s in the second scene that the brother declares his love for his sister. It’s a beautiful love scene and its really hard for the audience not to empathize with the two of them. And then she starts to behave in ways the audience disapproves of and he behaves in ways that are reckless.
MR: As the audience, do we learn something via the incestuous relationship?
JB: I think Giovanni’s love for Annabella becomes like an obsession for him. All consuming passion. Is it a lesson about incest? I think that’s the easy one, sure. And sure, there is definitely the analogy to things like interracial relationships or homosexual ones that may be deemed by some as not okay.
MR: Had you done readings or workshops of 'Tis Pity before?
JB: Red Bull had done two readings of this before. We did a reading five years ago and then another about three years ago. Nothing compares to being in a room with really experienced actors. There are a lot of nooks and crannies in the text. There’s a lot to uncover.
MR: How much table work do you do with something like this?
JB: There’s never enough. Ideally I do at least a week.
MR: As a director, what do you ideally want from your actors?
JB: Oh, intelligence, truth, honesty, fortitude, patience. Imagination.
Red Bull Theater’s production of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is currently in previews at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York and officially opens on April 26th. For more information visit www.redbulltheater.com
5 Questions with Jesse Berger
Q: Rehearsal or performance?
Q: Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill?
A: Depends on the day
Q: Essential first day of rehearsal accessory?
Q: Play that changed your approach to directing?
Q: Play you’ve not directed yet but are champing at the bit to do?
A: Peer Gynt.
Michael Raver is an actor and playwright. He’s performed classical theatrical roles at Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company and Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, as well as regional theaters across the country. As a playwright his work has been presented by The Martha Graham Dance Company, TACT, The Pearl Theatre Company, Bedlam, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, The Bridge Street Theater, and Sonnet Repertory Theatre. He is a judge of the Ferro Grumley Award for LGBT fiction and regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV.
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