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Cheek by Jowl Modernizes ‘'Tis Pity She’s a Whore’

What happens when you take a 17th century tragedy of incest, infamy and revenge and update it with 21st century sensibilities?

John Ford’s tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore written in 1633, has shades of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus, all rolled into one. It has a story centered around young lovers and enough blood and gore to put you off your food for a week. However, Ford’s sweethearts happen to be siblings. And when incest is the catalyst for the entirety of the play’s action, it’s difficult to find empathy for the doomed couple.

Nonetheless, the London theatre company Cheek by Jowl’s production of this play – running through Jan. 12 at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse as part of the CAP UCLA Program - does its level best to try and help you enter the minds of the brother/sister duo of Annabella (Gina Bramhill) and Giovanni (Orlando James) and understand their predicament.

Director Declan Donnellan and Co-Director Owen Horsley start by updating the production to today. Nick Ormerod’s entirely blood red set (shades of things to come) reveals a typical messy teenager’s bedroom and the focus of most of the action takes place in the centrally situated bed.

The plot (thanks to a subplot excised by the company) isn’t really too hard to follow: Boy (brother) confesses love for girl (sister) despite his attempts curb his incestuous obsession; girl and boy consummate their love; girl gets pregnant; girl forced to marry; pregnancy exposed; impregnator exposed; girl killed (at hand of brother).

We first meet Annabella at the opening of the play sitting on her bed, flicking through magazines and listening to Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ on her iPod, with a backdrop of posters on her bedroom wall that include ‘True Blood’ and ‘The Vampire Diaries.’

Bramhill has an easier task than James in gaining the audience’s empathy as it becomes clear how young and naïve she is and has never had the opportunity to discover who she truly is. Her eventual realization that her relationship with her brother cannot be justified comes too late to save her.

Bramhill has some of her strongest moments in her quieter episodes; particularly where she’s left folding baby clothes that her husband has brought her.

However, beyond the blatant sin of incest, Donnellan seizes Ford’s conceit that no one in this society is blameless; that many relationship lines have been blurred  - not just between brother and sister - and that the so-called religious community that condemns the young lovers is corrupt in its own way.

Carefully juxtaposing moments of true violence wrapped in moral outrage (there’s more than one gruesome death in this play as befits any tragedy), with musical interludes that include at times religious hymns, Donellan exposes many of the characters’ hypocritical tendencies.

Three standout performances should be noted. Laurence Spellman as Soranzo’s servant Vasquez has been transformed in this production into a Cockney “minder.” He has a horrific penchant for violence but a love and loyalty so strong for his master it would make Tony Soprano weep.

Soranzo (Gyuri Sarossy) is mesmerizing as Annabella’s husband, as he grapples with his wife’s betrayal yet somehow manages to accept her sins.

And finally Hedydd Dylan as Hippolita elevates her role as a widow spurned and desperate to exact vengeance. This is a woman in deep pain, who walks a knife-edge, and Dylan captures her torment with both humor and pathos.

The company does push the humor element sometimes a tad too far, as if they fear an audience won’t be able to stomach the tragedy.

If you can accept the premise of this play without trying to judge the characters’ actions, and can work your way around the confusing fact that all the cast is onstage pretty much at all times (even after they’ve been killed), it will keep you riveted for the full two hours (with no intermission).

This show is not nearly as good as the company’s all-male production of As You Like It, but it bravely takes a 400-year-old difficult text and makes it accessible to a modern audience, which is no easy feat.

The show runs through Jan. 12. Click here for tickets and details.

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