I remember this show very fondly for several reasons. First, it was a great company: everyone from cast and crew on out were marvelous people, and marvelously talented too. Second, this show introduced me to the Odyssey Theatre, which - together with Circus Theatricals - has been my artistic home base ever since. Third, I made some very good friends in this show (like Christina Burck) who remain close to this day.
Last, it was a sort of break-point for me with my past. Up until now I had mostly done small shows in small venues in Los Angeles; but with this production I found myself (hooray!) finally working at one of the premiere venues in the city. It feels good even now to write this. With ‘Tis Pity I felt like I was on the Los Angeles theatre map at last.
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore (not “’Tis A Pity,” a mistake many of us made at the beginning) is a good old barn-thumping Jacobean drama full of poisoned cups, daggers, skullduggery, blood, and betrayal. For those unfamiliar with the term, Jacobean indicates those plays that were written in England in the decades after the passing of Shakespeare and Jonson and, with the death of Elizabeth I herself, the close of the Elizabethan age. In this fifty-odd year period - with James I now on the throne - there arose on the English stage a new kind of drama that was a lot less subtle, and a lot more bloody, than anything seen before. In fact, our present time excepted, English playwrights during the Jacobean years (James is “Jacobus” in Latin, hence Jacobean) concocted some of the most lurid and bloody plots ever written. It’s almost as though a kind of contest were underway to see who could push the bounds of taste the farthest: previously taboo subjects such as murder, revenge, parricide and matricide, sex between master and servant ... all make their first modern dramatic appearance in Jacobean plays. Small wonder, then, that within a few decades the Puritans succeeded in having all commercial theatre banned in England (the ban lasted several decades). Small wonder, too, that to this day the term “Jacobean revenge tragedy” has special meaning for actors.
For all this, there are nonetheless a few good plays that have come down to us from Jacobean times; the odd script here and there that shows a spark of talent, or more than a lick of stagecraft. Of these, ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore must be among the better scripts. I can certainly testify that it was tremendous fun to do.
I played two roles in this show: an elderly Friar who spends most of his time thundering against encroaching evil, and the slimy Grimaldi, who wanders around the stage all night looking for trouble and ends up murdering an innocent man by stabbing him in the back (of course) with a poisoned dagger. The central plot, however, is even more colorful. It’s the tale of the incestuous love of Giovanni for his sister Annabella, and their despair over the fact that Annabella is being courted by half of the available bachelors in Parma and seems destined to be given to one of them by their trusting father, Florio. Annabella, of course, is in the throes of a much-reciprocated lust for Giovanni, and so she turns down all comers; but this only makes matters worse. One restless swain employs his devious manservant to do a little detective work, and with a little flirting and flattery directed at Annabella’s servant, Putana, the shocking truth comes out. In the end, Annabella marries Soranzo, but disaster is the result. Suffice it to say that Putana has her eyes put out with a knife, Hippolita drinks poison and dies before all at the wedding, there’s rioting in the streets of Parma, Giovanni emerges on the wedding night with Annabella’s heart impaled on his dagger, and at the final curtain there are no less than five still-warm corpses strewn about the stage, sloshing around (in our production at least) in enough stage blood to fill a small swimming pool.
Phew. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.
As I’ve said, the play was tremendous fun - and one of those shows you almost had to be in to fully appreciate. By which I mean, there were several of us in dual roles, and so blackouts were accompanied by much running and furious costume-swapping in the dim corridors behind Odyssey Theatre 1. My Grimaldi outfit was the only thing I didn’t like: it consisted of open shirt and leather pants which were tight and sexy, true, but also airless and hot. And as the Friar I had to throw over my Grimaldi getup a billowing monk’s robe with a rope waistcord and, to hide my face, a full-head mask (created by the very talented Gary Chapman - I still have it). Add to this all the props (every man had a sword) and the fact that the set was on two levels with no less than five possible exits and you begin to see the challenge. It’s a wonder we made it through with as little fuss as we did.
One night, of course, the predictable happened - a key prop was forgotten which almost sank the first scene in the show. It embarrasses me greatly to say I was the dunce who forgot it. Here’s what happened: The play opens on a street in Parma, Italy, where a young man named Giovanni (the wonderful Jonathan Brent) is arguing with his old mentor, the Friar (me). Before long it becomes obvious what the fight is about: Giovanni is defending having lustful feelings for his sister, while the appalled Friar huffs and bellows in reply. They go back and forth for a time, but finally the Friar - mainly by thundering loudly about doom and hell - gains the upper hand and Giovanni begins to waver. “What, then, must I do?” he asks in despair. At this point we had a neat bit of business worked out: I would reach to my belt and product a scourge - that is, a short, nasty-looking whip with many tails. I’d raise it high into the air, and then throw down dramatically - making a loud ‘slap’ - at his feet. And then I’d hiss, “Scourge thyself! Scourge thyself and pray for forgiveness!”
Well, you can guess what happened. One night I had Giovanni trembling and quaking in fear and I reached for my belt and, sure enough, the damn scourge wasn’t there! I couldn’t believe my hand! No whip! And there was no time to think of anything else - I didn’t have any extra lines. “Scourge thyself!” I croaked unsteadily, while pointing an all-too-empty hand at poor Jonathan. “Scourge thyself (with what?) and pray for forgiveness!” Jonathan looked at me like he was going to murder me before intermission, and I shrunk a little more with each passing second. It must have seemed odd to the audience, The angry Friar was, in fact, cowering a little - while contrite Giovanni seemed anything but!
Well ... I left the stage and poor Jonathan was on his own. And again, unfortunately there was no time to be brilliant. And so, instead of the usual scene to follow - in which he would repair to Giovanni’s room with the whip and then take off his shirt and lash himself while the lights dramatically fade ... what could he do? There was no time to be clever; the moment was nigh. So he did the best he could think of. He walked up into his room, took off his shirt, got on his knees - and then beat himself with his hands and fists. To the audience it probably looked nothing more than a little eccentric - and it was certainly forgotten in five minutes. But of course, to those of us in the cast, it seemed like an appalling moment, and I have to say that Jonathan wasn’t very eager to speak to me for the rest of that evening. Sigh. I don’t blame him. What a dumbass I was! I still wince when I think about it.
(You know, it’s one thing to screw yourself up in a scene. But it’s quite another to screw somebody else up. I think that’s the worst feeling in the world. From that day to this, I’ve always been extra-careful of my props in a show. Particularly if they have to be handled by someone else.)
Jonathan and I have, fortunately, long since made up over this. In fact it’s become one of our favorite things to laugh about whenever we meet.
Other goofs in the show were more harmless: like Walter Williamson as Senior Donado saying, at one point, with all seriousness: “And what conversation had you with Senior Annabella?” (instead of “Senior Florio”). The doozy of line-bloopers, though, had to be one wonderful night during a mad chase scene through the streets when Evan Arnold, as Poggio, was to say, “I saw a man with naked blade run this way...” and of course, said instead “I saw a naked man with blade run this way.” When Florio, in response to this, has a moment of recognition and goes “Grimaldi! On my life!” it gave a whole new meaning to the scene. You had to wonder what kind of entertainment these people got up to on slow Parma evenings.
But most nights we pulled off a very difficult show with tremendous verve, and I’m very proud to have been part of it. Sadly, so far I haven’t worked with many of this cast again in other things - but that just gives me something to look forward to in the future.
Here are three other fond memories.
First: on the same day the costumer brought in my leather pants as Grimaldi another pair were produced for Jonathan Brent. Now, at the time of this show I was in my late thirties while Jonathan was in his mid twenties, and he’s a good deal slimmer than me too, so the effect of leather pants and open shirt on him was dramatically different than the same on me. In my case, the ensemble looked kind-of cool but also brutish, which was just right for the character. In Jonathan’s case, however, he looked nothing like tormented Giovanni and more like some kind of ‘70s rock star. In fact, when he came out on the stage to show us, we all stopped and gaped until someone had the happy thought to say, “You look like Bon Giovanni.” It brought down the house. Jonathan’s eventual costume was more subdued.
Second memory: the play ends with a couplet by the Cardinal, who stands over the ruinous scene at the end and says: “One so young, with so much life in store / Who could not say ‘tis pity she’s a whore.” One day we were hanging around the theatre and it was slow and boring and I had the happy idea to make fun of this line. So I turned to someone, I forget who, and said something like: “One so young, whose life fell in the ditch / Who cannot say, ‘tis pity she’s a bitch.” It got a very gratifying laugh - and the next thing you know it became the cast’s new parlor game. For days and days after that we amused ourselves in slow moments by revealing to each other increasingly ribald and risqué couplets we’d made up - starting with things like: “One so young, who was a real looker / Who cannot say ‘tis pity she’s a hooker” and going downhill from there. By opening night it had reached the point where you only had to say the first line to get the effect: “One so young, who endured life’s hard brunt...” You get the idea. I have to say that some of the worst of these came from Paula Malcomson, the fallen Annabella herself. Face like an angel but oh, that wicked mouth.
Last memory: my good friend Tori King came to see this show and was in the Odyssey Theatre lobby when two elderly women wandered over and uncertainly joined the line behind her. One old maid turned to the other and said, “Is this the one about the whore?”
* * *
During the run of ‘Tis Pity I used to enjoy walking around the Odyssey Theatre, aimlessly exploring its byways and/or chatting with anyone I met along the way. It was while doing this that I became introduced to the people at Circus Theatricals.
One afternoon before a matinee I was hanging around the green room when Steve Irish walked in with a script in his hand. He was wearing a costume, but it wasn’t his costume for ‘Tis Pity - it was instead an Edwardian suit, complete with high collar and frock coat. I asked him what he was up to, and he explained that he was a member of a resident company at the Odyssey and they were rehearsing for a night of scenes to be performed in a few weeks. Now, I always liked Steve Irish, and he’s a fabulous actor (one of the best I know), so I immediately figured that any company he was part of might be a company I’d like to be part of too. And I also figured that seeing these scenes, besides being a lot of fun, would probably also be a chance to meet some good people. So I asked him to keep me posted about the performance dates, and happily for me, he did.
A few weeks later, then, I made my way to the Odyssey on a Monday night and sat down in Theatre 3 to watch this show. The house was packed and people even sat in the aisles, and the air was full of buzzing expectation. From the program I learned that we were going to see scenes from four plays by Anton Chekhov: excerpts from The Sea Gull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. I didn’t know any of these plays at the time, so I figured, well, if the acting sucks, at least I’ll know more about these plays, so it won’t be a total loss.
Jeannine Stehlin came out to welcome the audience and then the lights went down and show began. And within minutes I knew this company was up to something marvelous. The writing, of course, being Chekhov, couldn’t have been better, but even so the actors, and their direction, was of a stripe far above the usual makeshift nature of “scene nights” that people slap together. Most of the actors were at a very fine intermediate level, and there were one or two great ones. Steve Irish, for instance, stole the show (as I could have predicted) with a marvelous, funny Vershinin in the scene where he says goodbye to a heartbroken Masha (Three Sisters). But Allison Marich, as the prostrate woman he leaves behind, was simply stunning. At the other end of the scale, Jill Gascoine as the self-centered actress Arkadina, giving unconsciously heartless comfort to her son Konstantine (a very fine Dean Nichols) brought gusts of amazed, appalled laughter from the audience. There were many other, equally fine moments that night; and by the end of the evening I had made up my mind. I had to know these people. I had to become part of this family.
And happily ... I did!