Sunday, September 25, 2005

opening-night review of Mrs. Warren’s Profession

at ARt through Oct. 8

What used to be shocking about Mrs. Warren’s Profession was the idea that women could be prostitutes and that actors could openly perform a play about them.
That was 1893; this is now. But if the sexual angle fails to shock anymore, what should still sting the conscience is that even now, 112 years later, we still haven’t done nearly enough about the core problem that Shaw set out to confront: that poor women, reduced to the lowest poverty, have little alternative but to subsist by selling themselves.
Desperate women fucking johns to make a living isn’t immoral, Shaw suggests (in unexceptionable language); the immorality lies in those same johns, who don’t leave girls much choice, then continue to exploit them and, even worse, condemn them in moralistic terms for lack of character.
I’ll show you some immoral characters, the playwright says --- and they wear the latest fashions and work in fine buildings and smile, smile above their well-fed bellies. They can afford moral categories. Some people can’t afford their next meal.
We sometimes think of Shaw as a fusty Victorian -- all that talk, talk and not much to look at onstage.
But Shaw turns out to have been the Angry Young Man of the 1890s -- and his moral fervor is capable of burning us even now, right where we sit.
The people sitting in the mostly full opening-night audience at ARt’s second show (through Oct. 8) were feeling the heat or something, because they were noticeably quiet. During a debate-play that’s fortunately filled with a lot of emotional reversals and revelations, they were listening -- noiselessly, intently -- to the debates Mrs. Warren has with her daughter.
A century ago -- and even today -- folks might expect a scene about a young woman discovering that her mother is a big-time madam to end with the mother’s tearful self-recrimination and the daughter’s moral disgust. Shaw’s having none of that: His scene ends with a mother-daughter reunion, with the assertion that even whores love their children -- as much as the rest of us, in fact. Shaw’s play even suggests that using such a term in itself betrays our misunderstanding of economic realities: Prostitutes sell what’s available to them. They market what they do best. Are they really so different in that from the rest of us?
In the title role, Karen Nelsen commands the stage -- bossing her daughter, instinctively cajoling men who might do something for her, raging when her daughter behaves incomprehensibly. Nelsen’s righteous indignation in the tirades Shaw wrote for her character in Act 2 and Act 4 -- both aimed at moralists who ignore economic realities en route to condemning prostitutes and feeling much better about themselves afterward for having done it -- was gripping. In a half-dozen Spokane performances by this talented actress, this is her finest achievement -- ingratiating, insecure, angry.
As for Caryn Hoaglund’s Vivie Warren, I felt sure she could project the unconventional self-assurance of the first act’s Modern Young Woman. But could she pull off her character’s oscillation between rejection and acceptance of her mother? Hoaglund can be self-assertive, sure -- but could she pull off the moral outrage?
With Nelsen’s help, she did. And that’s not a swipe at Hoaglund’s talent; it’s intended as a compliment to how well this mother and daughter pair, never emotionally close, overflow with revelations in the fourth-act confrontation -- and work as a team doing it. They’re the wolverine and the cobra, circling each other, wary, using their fine Victorian gowns to conceal the claws underneath.
As Vivie’s love interest, Frank, Jon Lutyens injects plenty of mischievous energy and boyish, prankish fun. But his character can gamble, brandish a gun, smart off to his dad -- there’s an edginess of rebellion in Frank that Lutyens’ literate elf hasn’t yet captured.
Reed McColm contributes a family friend who stands for beauty and propriety -- getting past just that into genuine compassion in the final scene, when he takes his leave of Vivie.
Though he may be getting typecast locally as a self-satisfied John Bull type, Ron Ford finds the bluster and hypocrisy in this particular show’s English vicar.
There were some opening-night wobbles involving hesitant line deliveries -- with the usually dependable McColm dropping more than his share -- but those are conversational creases that will get ironed out. Renae Meredith sketches in a stark and restrained set -- I missed the potential in the two gardens for hints of pastoral escape from the ugly realities of big-city corruption.
Director Michael Weaver contributes a natural-seeming but pointed tableau for the first-act curtain line along with some interesting blocking (of the power-mongering kind) when Vivie has to fend off the advances of an unwelcome suitor, Sir George Crofts. Patrick Treadway creates real menace in the role of Mrs. Warren’s sleazy partner (even if Ron Ford, as the reverend, has more of the bulldog look that the script calls for). Treadway’s wealthy baronet demonstrates his ineffectualness (he can’t open a lawn chair) and his arrogance (muttering under his breath about how other’s concerns -- anything other than his own business -- is beneath him. Treadway succeeds in making Sir George and his petty vengefulness seem both dangerous and beneath concern; it’s a solid performance.
If you want intelligent drama, full of unexpected reversals and wise talk, then you’ll sit for two and a half hours just as intently and quietly as the opening night crowd did. Often, playgoers go to Mrs. Warren because they vaguely remember that it’s about prostitution -- a whiff of something scandalous in the air. But that cigarette Vivie lights up in Act 4 isn’t just some symbol of facile Virginia Slims feminism; it’s a sign that Shaw wants to light a fire under your seat. He wants social action, and he wants it now. ARt’s Mrs. Warren is the kind of production that will keep you rooted to your seat during the show itself and scratching your head thoughtfully afterward.


At September 26, 2005 4:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hope it's not too late for you to catch this, Bobo, but Renae Meredith walked off the job long before the build for this show began. The main carpenter was Tony Caprile but some others worked on it as well, including Bill Marlowe's stage-crafts class at SFCC. Best to check with Micheal or Grant to see who deserves credit but Renae Meredith ain't the one.

At September 26, 2005 4:45 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Thanks, and I'll check.
Renae M. is listed as the set designer in the program.

At September 27, 2005 10:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops! My bad. I hadn't realized that she designed it. I was under the misimpression that John Hoffland desgned it and thought you were crediting her for building it. Apologies to Renae!

At September 27, 2005 12:20 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At September 27, 2005 1:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can anyone drop a few shows? Is there an understudy?

At September 27, 2005 2:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tony really pitched in and came through when they were left hanging. He volunteered his time and did a tremendous job all with a smile. He truly is a wonderful person and deserves all the credit he can get.

At September 27, 2005 3:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

settle down maria

At September 30, 2005 12:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say I saw the show on a differen't night and thought is was great, too. There were definate lines dropped on the night I went also, but covered well by the actors. I have to say Karen Nelsen and Jon Lutyens were my two favorite parts. Jon really gave a comedic edge to what could have been an emotionally draining drama. I don't know much about Shaw but it seemed like that was his intent for the show and that character.
Thanks for letting the rest of us leave our opinions, this is great!

At September 30, 2005 1:28 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Ha! A certain local artistic director predicted that this blog would never attract any positive comments, only negative attacks.
Well, the preceding was an entirely complimentary remark about Mrs. Warren's Profession.
Thanks for posting a comment -- that's what this blog is for -- proving that it's not just a collection of catty remarks.

At October 01, 2005 1:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This show has an amazing cast of favorites (local and non) that are just a joy to watch. Although the story belongs to the ladies, the supporting cast of men are just delightful. Everyone looks like they are having fun and that makes for a lively evening of theatre. Don't miss this one.


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