We all enjoy having our self-regard seconded. Bessus, an Iberian captain, prefers to have his thirded. The vain soldier pals around with not one, but two legalistic windbags whose job is to assert his courage. Even when Bessus’s behavior is utterly craven, his sidekicks mount hairsplitting arguments that prove him valiant — and he believes them.
The hilarious egotism of the flinty-eyed Bessus (Ian Blackwell Rogers) is a highlight of “A King and No King,” Brave Spirits Theatre’s revival of a 1611 tragicomedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. There are other attractions, too, in Brave Spirits’ current lineup, a clever pairing of “A King and No King” with John Ford’s “ ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” (c. 1631) under the umbrella title “The Incest Rep.” Brimming with sensationalistic material — with plotlines that touch not only on incest, but also conspiracies, betrayals, disguises, political corruption and shocking violence — the plays are striking and suspenseful. The acting in the productions can be creaky, and the fights often look fake, but it’s mostly fun to watch these 400-year-old soap operas rip along.
Cassie Ash directs “A King and No King,” which chronicles the scandalous love between Arbaces, king of Iberia (Brendan Edward Kennedy), and his sister Princess Panthea (Kathryn Zoerb). As if the siblings’ romance weren’t complicated enough, the moody Arbaces has promised Panthea to his recently vanquished enemy, Tigranes, king of Armenia (Gary DuBreuil), who is loath to give up his own sweetheart, Spaconia (Alison Talvacchio).
On a stark, runway-style stage, dressed in modern-meets-Renaissance garb (the aesthetic for both productions), the actors conjure up the scenes of scheming, recrimination and braggadocio that hurtle into a happy ending. (Adalia Tonneyck designed the costumes.) Briana Manente is dynamic as an Iberian general, and Zoerb, DuBreuil and Rebecca Ellis (as the Iberian queen mother) make poised royals.
But Rogers is the standout as the unsmiling, narcissistic Bessus. (Danny Cackley and Lisa Hill-Corley channel his pontificating sidekicks.) A scene in which Bessus insists on talking about himself, despite Panthea’s plea that he recount how Arbaces fared in battle, is laugh-out-loud funny. (According to Brave Spirits, “A King and No King” has never been staged professionally in the D.C. area.)
“ ’Tis Pity,” a tragedy, also contains some humor. Director Charlene V. Smith (Brave Spirits’ artistic director) nicely hones the comedy in a subplot about a ninny named Bergetto (Kennedy), who in this production is seen sucking on a series of lollipops. The drollery serves to emphasize the intensity of the broader play, which centers on a secret love affair between siblings Giovanni (Cackley) and Annabella (Jenna Berk).
Sometimes resembling a dark-mirror version of “Romeo and Juliet,” “ ’Tis Pity” also depicts the doings of Annabella’s public suitors, including Soranzo (Rogers), who has previously seduced and jilted the married Hippolita (Ellis). Multiple revenge schemes gallop apace, adding menace as the tale barrels toward a conclusion of breathtaking gruesomeness.
Manente brings gusto to the role of Vasques, a servant with uncertain loyalties, and Berk makes Annabella a poignant figure. Cackley is even better, suggesting Giovanni’s brooding emotional depths but also his intelligence and philosophical daring. Chafing at the taboo that bars him from his soul mate, Giovanni questions all authority except his own desire.
’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford, directed by Charlene V. Smith. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. A King and No King, by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, directed by Cassie Ash. About 2 hours. Set design for both productions, Leila Spolter; lighting, Jason Aufdem-Brinke; music director, Zach Roberts; fight and blood director, Casey Kaleba; dance choreography, Alison Talvacchio. With Darren Marquardt and Erik Harrison. Through April 23 at the Lab at Convergence, 1819 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria. Tickets: $20 per play or $30 for both. Visit bravespiritstheatre.com.