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Mrs. Warren’s Profession

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(left to right) Karen Ziemba, Nicole King  Photos:Carol Rosegg

 Mrs. Warren’s Profession

                          by Deirdre Donovan

“Debauchery glorified!”

So penned the critic of the New York Sun when George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession originally appeared on a New York stage in 1905.

Shaw’s play, written in 1893, had its baptism by fire in the theater on both sides of the Atlantic. For starters, it was banned in Britain by the Lord Chamberlain (the British government’s official censor) but managed to have a members-only performance at the Lyric Club on January 5, 1902. The next performance in Britain wouldn’t be until 1925.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession surfaced in New York on a public stage (that would be the Garrrick Theatre) on October 28, 1905.  The police were at the ready, however, arresting the cast and crew for disorderly conduct.  

No question Shaw’s drama about the relationship between Mrs. Warren, a prostitute-turned-brothel-owner, and her 22 year-old daughter, a mathematical maven and aspiring business woman, ruffled the feathers of polite society when it first landed on the boards.  

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(left to right) Nicole King, David Lee Huynh

Its current incarnation at Theatre Row’s Theater 2 is unlikely to raise anybody’s eyebrows.  That said, the play surely can raise your consciousness about why Shaw felt so compelled to write this problem play that exposes the hypocrisy of conventional morality.  Or as Shaw himself put it: It was “to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together."

Indeed, Shaw was both a playwright and philosopher.  And, truth be told, if one is to parse this current production with any clarity, what must be uncovered first is whether the director David Staller (who is the Artistic Director of the Gingold Theatrical Group) is leaning more on Shaw’s play or the playwright’s thought on social morality.  And, dollars to donuts, I would bet Staller is highlighting the playwright’s thought. 

That’s not to say Staller is ignoring Shaw’s drama.  In fact, in a program note, Staller noted that his production script was assiduously created from Shaw’s 1912 version and also employs the notes the playwright later made for a proposed screenplay.  Still, the warhorse takes care of itself.  Shaw’s satiric language and inventive storytelling gallop powerfully through each unfolding scene on stage. 

Still, Staller succeeds here by stressing the humanitarian concerns imbedded in the masterpiece and how they can speak to our own cultural moment.  Mrs. Warren’s Profession was Shaw’s third play, and it’s clear that the playwright’s sympathies were for the disenfranchised (think impoverished women of his day).  Moreover, Shaw also had a strong belief in the concept of the “New Woman” (think Vive).  In short, a woman who embraced both freedom and responsibility.

Instead of choosing a contemporary setting for his production, Staller time-travels to the last moments of La Belle Époque. True, La Belle Époque might be a long reach back in history from where we stand today.  But when you listen to Mrs. Warren (Karen Ziemba) sum the dilemma of being a woman in a man’s world and justify her actions, she may well be understood by any woman today who struggles to have the same rights as a man in society:  Or as Mrs. Warren bluntly put it:  "If people arrange the world that way for women, there's no good pretending it's arranged the other way. No: I never was a bit ashamed really."

The production’s strong suit is in its acting, especially Karen Ziemba and Nicole King, who assay Mrs. Kitty Warren and Vive Warren, respectively.  Neither of them overplays their hand but let Shaw’s genius breathe through them.  Ziemba puts her own stamp on this plum role by performing Mrs. Warren with a mix of cocky independence, maternal feeling, and a soupçon of coyness.  King’s Vive is an intellectual, rightly strong-willed, and ambitious to boot.

That’s not to say that the rest of the cast is relegated to standing in their shadows.  The four male members of the cast acquit themselves well.  Alvin Keith performs the hopeless romantic and idealist Praed with suitable reserve.  Robert Cuccioli plays Sir George Crofts as the quintessential Victorian gentleman, who also has an eye for the ladies (with Vive being his latest love interest).  Raphael Nash Thompson embodies the backsliding and dull-witted Reverend Samuel Gardner just right.  And David Lee Huynh’s ideally inhabits Frank Gardner as all charm, no substance. 

Brian Prather’s monochromatic set, lit by Jamie Roderick, is composed of grays, whites, and shadows.  It is smartly complemented by Asa Benally’s array of similarly-toned period costumes.  While some viewers might object to the lack of color on stage, this production purposefully emphasizes that we don’t live in a black-and-white world but in a place that is closer to gray.  If you are still befuddled by the lackluster set, by all means, read your program.  Staller tucks in more information on the set in his program note, including that it was “inspired by a library from one of England’s universities that has, indeed, been overtaken by our Natural world.”

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(front, back) Nicole King, Karen Ziemba

Beyond the acting and stage decor, what interested me most about Mrs. Warren’s Profession is the nature of the audience it attracts.  Unfortunately, I saw no young people in the audience at the Saturday evening performance I attended.  The majority of theatergoers, in fact, were well over 40.  Too bad that young people weren’t represented in the house to witness this Shavian work that could meaningfully speak to them at their impressionable age.

If Mrs. Warren’s Profession is great theater—and who would disagree?—it is surely because it speaks of truth and life questions that cannot be ignored.  Why not go see it for yourself?

Through November Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and Dyer Avenues), New York City. 

For tickets, phone 212/714-2442, ext 2.

Running time:  1 hour, 40 minutes, with no intermission.