Mrs. Warren’s Profession
(left to right) Karen Ziemba, Nicole King Photos:Carol Rosegg
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
by Deirdre Donovan
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
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
(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
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.
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.”
(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
Through November 20th.at
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and
Dyer Avenues), New York City.
For tickets, phone 212/714-2442,
Running time: 1
hour, 40 minutes, with no intermission.