Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth

Ever since Jonathan Moscone started adding late 19th and early 20th century classics into California Shakespeare Theater’s seasons early in his decade as artistic director, the company has done an outstanding job with the works of George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde. Former San Jose Rep artistic director Timothy Near, who helmed Cal Shakes’s near-perfect 2008 production of Uncle Vanya, now takes on George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which was initially banned for its no-nonsense discussion of prostitution and particularly of society’s culpability for providing few economic alternatives for women.

Dan Hiatt and Anna Bullard in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Photo by Kevin Berne

What Shaw has to say on the matter sounds more ahead of its time than controversial today, but the play still packs a hefty punch in Near’s sharp staging with a stellar cast at Cal Shakes’s outdoor amphitheater. Stacy Ross gives an especially powerful performance as Mrs. Warren, her refined airs quickly dissolving into a working-class accent whenever she’s agitated. Ross has done a lot of Shaw in the past, and it shows in how sharply she wields the language, but what really strikes one about her Mrs. Warren is the dignity of someone who thoroughly knows herself and the world and has little patience for hypocrisy, aside from the base level necessary to get along in society.

Anna Bullard (who also played Ross’s daughter in Killer Joe at Marin Theatre Company some years back) makes a forceful Vivie Warren, her well educated and headstrong daughter fresh out of college. With a head for numbers but no patience for romance or the arts, Vivie plans to go into business for herself as an accountant in London. She barely knows her mother, as Mrs. Warren is always living somewhere or other in continental Europe, and is unwilling to cede any parental authority to someone who’s never been a mother to her.

Only through pressing does Vivie finally find out where the money to pay for her comfortable upbringing came from. Though Shaw cleverly avoids saying so outright in a (clearly unsuccessful) attempt to get past the censors, it’s quite clear that Mrs. Warren’s profession is as a high-class madam and sometime prostitute, and both Warren women have passionate speeches about the lack of economic opportunities for women that lead her to that life. Bullard’s Vivie is whip-smart and disarmingly forthright but also somewhat closed off emotionally, and her back-and-forths with Ross as Mrs. W are by far the strongest scenes in a strong production.

The one thing that doesn’t ring true is Vivie’s cutesy-talking mini-romance with her young neighbor Frank Gardner, just because it’s hard to imagine what she sees in him. Richard Thieriot’s Frank is charming in his brash enthusiasm—at one point on opening night he pointed gleefully to an actual hawk flying overhead, but he’s at best a scamp and wastrel and upon closer inspection a cad. Like the 2008 Shotgun Players production, Near’s staging makes Frank’s initial encounter with Mrs. Warren much more risqué than Shaw’s version, making Frank seem to be easily the worst human being in the play in the way he trash-talks her afterward.

And it’s not that he doesn’t have competition on that score. Andy Murray has a strong taurine quality as Mrs. Warren’s crony and business partner Sir George Crofts—bullish in the sense of an actual bull rather than that of stock-market optimism—an up-front and unrepentant bounder who finds himself attracted to Vivie despite not being altogether sure that he’s not her father.

Rod Gnapp makes a nicely hapless Reverend Samuel Gardner, a stern and status-obsessed country rector with his own shady past of youthful indiscretions and no respect at all from his son Frank. Dan Hiatt is an amiable Mr. Praed, Mrs. Warren’s faithful and platonic lifetime friend—everyone’s friend, in fact—although his passionate artistic bent mostly manifests itself as a vague dreamy air.

Near elongates the play with some extra bits that add more to the mood than they do to the action, such as a long opening sequence of Mrs. Warren and Vivie being dressed by maids to the Chieftains and Sinead O’Connor track “Factory Girl,” or the two of them slow-dancing at the end of act one to a string quartet instrumental version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Some of these moments feel heavy-handed, such as the cast striking dramatic poses between scenes in a startling shift of tone or a voiceover of Ross reciting the last two lines of “Factory Girl” before the play begins.

The music in Jeff Mockus’s sound design is delightful throughout, featuring a whole lot of cello and some delightful surprises such as a string rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Erik Flatmo’s non-literal set of large painted roses all over the walls and floor strikes an intriguing contrast with Meg Neville’s marvelous period costumes, full of color in the country and all black and grays in the city.

It’s a terribly witty play, rife with clever banter, but definitely not a comedy, although Chekhov probably would have called it one. As a drama it’s somewhat truncated, with an ending that feels stark and sudden no matter how much leads up to it. But what’s so striking about the play—no surprise if you know Shaw, but scandalous in its day—is how powerfully it indicts society as a whole for devaluing women and forcing them into prostitution to avoid much worse prospects elsewhere. Shaw’s skewering of society’s pious pretenses keeps the play from ever really losing its currency, because moral hypocrisy sadly never goes out of style.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Through August 1
Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way
Orinda, CA

Show #75 of 2010, attended July 10

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