03/26/2012 03:52 pm ET Updated May 26, 2012

First Nighter: Declan Donnellan Takes No Pity on John Ford's "'Tis Pity She's a Whore"

'Tis Pity She's a Whore -- John Ford's 1633 tragedy about a brother and sister who fall in love and voraciously act on it -- isn't often seen and hasn't been presented all that frequently since it first played a London theater. The very reason for its relative obscurity may be that incest is still considered the last taboo by many and a trifle too offensive for even the most liberal tastes.

On the other hand, director Declan Donnellan has unfortunately given the opus an all-too-familiar look. Ordinarily an extremely reliable source of innovative directorial inspirations, Donnellan has resorted to so many conventional -- not to say, clichéd -- ideas in his current treatment at the Brooklyn Academy's Harvey that the only argument he makes in favor of the work's genuine power is implicit: The freshest way to present it now may be in period dress.

Among the completely unoriginal tactics he's applied are: a contemporary setting (Nick Ormerod's version of the bedroom Tracy Emin has installed here and there, claiming it's a replica of her own), a one-act running-time trimmed from five acts, less significant characters given the heave-ho and fewer corpses, male and female nudity for what seems like nothing more than titillation's sake; fake blood generously splattered, frequent dance routines lifted by movement specialist Jane Gibson from rock videos and oddly reminiscent of the choreography in the Jesus Christ Superstar revival just hitting Broadway.

While trying the patience of ticket buyers inured to these supposed exciting and shocking effects, Donnellan -- whose staging of Tony Kushner's Millennium Approaches may remain its best incarnation to date -- has kept to the predominant storyline faithfully enough. Annabella (Lydia Wilson) and bro Giovanni (Jack Gordon) have sex, despite Gio's friar pal (Nyasha Hatendi) advising against it.

Disregarding the encouragement offered by her nurse Putana (Lizzie Hopley) to continue on her societally-incorrect path, Annabella decides she'd better behave more conventionally and marry one of the ardent, chisel-chested swains sniffing around her like Las Vegas lounge lizards. She chooses Soranzo (Jack Hawkins) after his man Vasques (Laurence Spellman) does a bit of well-executed intervening with the other contenders.

But things get out of hand when, the marriage knot tied, she discovers she's pregnant and alerts Soranzo he's not the father. Whereupon help on revealing the real father's identity is enlisted from Gratiano (Jimmy Fairhurst, executing a Chippendale turn) with dire consequences for the tattling Putana. Eventually, the heightened action ends well for no one -- unless copiously spilled blood and survivors' horrified looks can be deemed felicitous.

Under the circumstances, most of the actors do whatever they can. They certainly demonstrate how well they've been drilled for the Electric-Glide-like line dances. Among the good sports, Spellman is especially lubricious as the cunning Vasquez, and Hopley pumps a lot of oooh-factor into the suggestively named Putana. Wilson speaks with the light voice of a Parma valley girl, but she's lithe as an al dente spaghetti strand and does the serious-dilemma thing well. The only cast member trying cumulative audience patience is Gordon. The later it gets in the proceedings, the more he speaks his lines as if there's a full stop after every word: This. Gets. Tiresome.

It appears that Ford, quilling his provocative pentameters during Charles I's reign, wanted to outdo his Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessors with whatever previously overlooked perversities he could dream up. Along the way, he borrows from those forerunners, too. For instance, the star-crossed lovers are reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet with their friar and nurse. Plus, there's a not nice body mutilation development familiar from Titus Andronicus.

At best, the production is a blessedly shortish curiosity -- one carrying with it the twice-told moral lesson that it's not a particularly wise notion for brothers and sisters to go all the way.