Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

You've gotta have heart

June 30, 2008

Michael Hayden as Giovanni and René Augesen as Annabella.
Photo : Kevin Berne/ACT San Francisco 2008

Before reading this please be aware I couldn't care less about spoilers so if you do, perhaps you should go elsewhere.

One of the events I didn’t get around to writing about during my recent visit to San Francisco was ACT’s current production of John Ford’s 16th-century morality play ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which is on stage through this coming weekend. My main attraction to this performance was novelty – Ford’s work is not revived every day, and it’s a play that I’ve heard about, but have never seen.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this staging, directed by ACT director Carey Perloff, is how timid it is despite all the marketing department’s protestations to the contrary. Yes, it’s a play about revenge and incest that has the word “whore” in the title, but it seems watered down compared to what I imagine it looked like 400 years ago. Although we may envision ourselves as somehow more worldly wise than those long ago audiences, this staging would suggest we’re far more delicate in our sensibilities. Take for example, the lack of a heart. Most oddly, the climax of the play centers on Giovanni's display of his sister's heart after having just removed it from her possession in a sort-of-romantic mercy killing. He presents the heart to the assembled cast before the ensuing blood bath you know is coming, and draws everyone's attention to it. Strangely enough, there is no such prop to be seen in Perloff’s staging, which makes the whole thing seem a bit odd. Now centuries ago, surely they used an animal heart or some other such organ and, granted, that probably isn’t a good idea in this day and age. But you can’t tell me there isn’t something they could have come up with to resemble viscera. There’s plenty of blood, just not enough flesh.

The performances are quite good overall, though the dramatic elements of the plot work better than the comic ones, which often seem stiff and not quite as bawdy as they may have been intended. The brother and sister pairing of Michael Hayden and René Augesen was believable and earnest. The candle and steel girder set was basic enough not to get in the way and dreary enough to set the mood, although this seems to me a standard issue ACT set for several other productions I’ve witnessed here in recent years. Then there’s the solo cello accompaniment featuring original incidental music composed and performed by "avant-pop, chamber-punk trailblazer" Bonfire Madigan Shive in an angel costume on a riser above the stage surrounded by what could best be described as organ pipes. In a bit of a Spring Awakening maneuver, Shive has been enlisted to add some modern, edgy Gothic overtones to the proceedings that avoid being as over-the-top as I may make it sound. It’s not at all a bad production and it deserves fuller houses than the one I sat in on a Saturday matinée. It closes this weekend so you still have a chance.

One other San Francisco post-script. While in town I got the opportunity to interview bass-baritone Eric Owens. He is a charming and very talented young singer with a big career ahead of him. However, my opportunity to interview him appears to not have been a unique one for local bloggers, and I have elected not to publish the interview for the sake of avoiding redundancy. Let me just say, though, that you have to love someone who was inspired to sing opera by listening to the 1973 Carlos Kleiber recording of Der Freischütz. Chalk one up to Carl Maria von Weber.



'Tis Pity without a heart? What could be the point of that? The heart is notorious, and ranks high among the reasons to stage the play at all.

I actually appeared in a production of TPSAW at UC Berkeley in the late '70s as one of the minor supporting citizens of Parma -- Donado, if I recall right. That production featured a tolerably fresh sheep's heart in the pivotal role of Annabella's heart. It had its own makeup station.

[Robert Sicular, who appears as the incestuous siblings' long-suffering father Florio in ACT's production, was a contemporary, but was not in that particular production.]
Eric Owens is so dear. (Der Freischuetz! Cute!) I'm sure your interview was at least different from mine, why not publish it?
While I enjoyed talking to Eric Owens very much, trust me, there is not much new I have to add to the conversation after seeing your quite good interview earlier. Maybe next time around.
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