Mrs. Warren’s Profession, now playing at Seattle Shakespeare Theater through April 10th highlights George Bernard Shaw’s talent to expose outdated beliefs and uncover hypocrisies using humor and shocking statements to preach his philosophies. Shaw, 1856-1950, an author, playwright, critic and socialist, was intrigued and often outraged with classism, sexism and cultural stereotyping in England during his lifetime. He devoted his pointed, witty plays and his life to such themes.
Program cover with Emily Chisholm as Vivie Warren.
This play also continues in the vein of the Theater’s 25th season theme, “bloodlines”. It is the relationship tale of a daughter and mother whose very different upbringing highlights a rocky getting to know each other; and ends in a severed relationship with an unenlightened conclusion.
Many of us recognize Shaw’s most famous play, Pygmalion, the popular musical play (1956) and movie (1964), My Fair Lady , made shortly after his death. The poor, uneducated street person Eliza Doolittle is rescued by the pompous professor Henry Higgins and through social engineering made/turned into a grand dame introduced and accepted into high society illustrating many points about hypocrisy, class systems, social judgments and expectations.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession does all that but tackles another interesting social issue: the worth of women and their work. Both mother and daughter each insist at some point in the play they: ‘Like working…for money!” Their shared common point of view derived from different life perspectives on the subject in a society that does not respect or support this for women is interesting in juxtaposition…then and now!
Using the life of prostitution and livelihood of a successful madam, Mrs. Kitty Warren (using the Mrs. as a cover for her life and the out-of-wedlock mothering of a child) has high expectations of an eventual loving relationship with her daughter and harsh judgments about a society that shackles a woman’s worth to a man. Her daughter, Vivie Warren, raised well on her mother’s earnings but in absentia (the best caregivers, clothes, and education) has found success without her mother or men in mathematics and has expectations of making it on her own despite how hard and lonely that might be. She has judgments of society as well and finds herself living in a similar but different reality than her mother still with inequality all around. And like Pygmalion this is a sort of rags to riches story with some interesting twists and turns.
Victor Pappas, an award winning director, directs this show with a steady hand seemingly concentrating on good acting to showcase Shaw’s script as the star of the show. There are many fun lines like from Vivie: “All I need is a comfortable chair, a cigar, a shot of whiskey and a novel with a good detective story in it.” Proclaiming her independence, unconventionality, and blurring the lines between women and men. There are many more.
The acting is quite good on all counts. Emily Chisholm as Vivie plays her character with energy, strength, thoughtfulness. Many of those thoughts, expressed in a well-done English accent, often in contradiction of her life experience and idealism, show the puzzling results on her very expressive face. Sure of everything in one moment and wonderingly confused in the next, she plays out the contradictions earnestly and convincingly.
Bobbi Kotula and Emily Chisholm in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Photo by John Ulman.
Bobbi Kotula as Mrs. Kitty Warren is also very good in her role as the unconventional “successful” women who defines success in her own way and views society in a way that justifies her existence and that success. In many ways she is right! The first scene where the two meet alone and Mrs. Warren reveals to her daughter the details of their lives is a particularly good one. It highlights both actors’ skills and Shaw’s script and philosophies.
The men in the show are really stereotypes: the boyfriend looking for a fortune (Trevor Young Marston); the spineless and in the end of questionable ethics cleric (Todd Jefferson Moore); the idealistic, innocent elder unknowingly used to further Mrs. Warren’s hopes for her daughter (Robert Shampain); and the man behind the success of Mrs. Warren (ah, the irony!), the sleazy, corpulent titled investor in the prostitution enterprise, Sir George Crofts (Richard Ziman). All do their part in making the show interesting and developing the plot and their characters well.
The play is fun to watch and many of Shaw’s points are well taken and articulated in humorous ways. The end, for me, fell short of summing anything up in a truly meaningful way and was disappointing.
The well-done set by Martin Christoffel and lights by Jessica Trundy move from open, summery lightness to cooped-up darkness imitating the turn of the plot with some cleaver touches, scenery and scene changes.
The Final Word: I enjoyed the production, its comedy and tragedy of errors was entertaining and enlightening. Many of the points about convention and non-convention, sexism and a woman’s inability to get paid what she is worth still hit home. This is an intimate house and watching theater here is fun. (The new seats have arrived!) This is a very good production that is well acted, funny, ironic and meaningful on many levels in Shaw’s times and ours! I enjoyed myself all the way up to the ending, but found that it did not completely satisfy as much as the rest of the play. Tickets for the run through April 10th.
Added Bonus: The First Folio event at the Seattle Public Library is going on March 21st – April 17th with lots of Shakespeare events surrounding it. Seattle Shakespeare Theatre will be participating in the celebration. Information and calendar of events included here.
Bill’s Bash, the 25th Anniversary edition fundraiser for The Seattle Shakespeare Theater, is coming up April 24th and promises to be lots of fun for a great cause.