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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
For a play that is not considered to be among George Bernard Shaw’s best, Mrs. Warren’s Profession has enjoyed considerable notoriety and popularity. Presumably it is the incendiary subject matter (certainly for its time) that keeps it a somewhat popular item today. It seems to be popping up with even more regularity in recent years. I have a vivid memory of Dana Ivey in the titular role in an admirable production by The Irish Repertory Company in 2005. Last summer I was fortunate to see a splendid production starring Mary Haney as a deliciously crusty Mrs. Kitty Warren at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada.
It may say a lot about this play, that for me it has yet to wear out its welcome and I looked forward to seeing this current production at McCarter Theatre Center. To make things even more interesting for me, Mrs. Warren is being played by Suzanne Bertish, who I also saw only this past summer as the famed seductress of the Nile in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. To see Bertish go from playing a teenage vixen to calloused entrepreneur proved to be an event in itself.
If barging down the Nile and sinking (acknowledgement and apology to John Mason Brown’s infamous critique of Tallulah Bankhead) was presumably far from Bertish’s finest hour, I am prepared to say that, at the very least, she stayed afloat, as the relatively unsinkable Mrs. Warren— a woman molded by economic necessity and by her genuine passion for life.
Bertish, whose credits on both sides of the Atlantic are otherwise commendable, may not be the first actor to resort to the kind of dated theatrical flourishes (horrifying posturing, facial contortions and grimacing) that would have shocked audiences even in 1904. But it is hard to imagine that, under the artistic direction of Emily Mann, not a moment of truth or honesty is ever revealed, only indication and pretense. It is a performance enabled solely by its monumental superficiality. You could say that the final confrontation scene between Bertish and Madeleine Hutchins, who plays the self-sufficient daughter Vivie, is the last straw. It’s as if Mann said to Bertish, "If you can’t make it real, at least make it loud. "
Mrs. Warren is a difficult role that has challenged the resources of many leading ladies since Mary Shaw (an entrepreneurial feminist in her own right) starred in and directed the original New York production in 1905 as well as in three subsequent revivals. It is a role that defied the more eccentric dramatic gifts of Ruth Gordon in the last Broadway revival in 1976.
Whatever can be perceived as Mann’s approach is visible in Hutchins and the others who gratifyingly seem to be having a ripping good time mixing sex with politics and a dash of religion. Let me remind you that second-rate Shaw has the ability to be first-rate theater even when it is left to the supporting players to deliver the Shavian wit and insights.
The author, who lived just short of a century, was a mere lad of 38 when he shocked the late Victorians and Americans with his talky and melodramatic diatribe on the prevalent social ills. I suspect he would be pleased with Hutchins, a talented and attractive blonde who gives a robust performance as Vivie, a lonely girl, a hardened but heartbreaking figure, set adrift in a sea of reprehensible people.
It’s hard to complain about Shaw’s long-winded speeches when there are actors about who are able to bring out the most essential human qualities in their rather odious characters. Most amusing is Edward Hibbert. As Mr. Praed, an effete, opportunistic artist, he gives every indication with every entrance that he believes himself to be the play’s most provocative protagonist. There is something to be said for stealing scenes when so much is at stake. He has also been outfitted to the nines by costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser.
Most despicable is a ghoulish-looking Roco Sisto, as Sir George Crofts, the "madam’s" business partner who "could take the prize at a dog show." Michael Izquierdo is unexpectedly winning as Frank, Vivie’s penniless, fair-weather suitor. Robin Chadwick fulfills his assignment as Frank’s father, the "spirits loving" Rev. Gardner who was "shoved into a church and has been making as ass of himself ever since."
The supporting roles are all fastidiously directed by Mann to bring out the best in Shaw. The four modest settings designed by Eugene Lee, include the interior and exterior of a cottage, a rectory and a business office, evoked just enough of Haslemere in Surrey and serve as functional compliments to the wondrously florid speechifying. Shaw’s play, comprised as it is of his philosophical attitudes on prostitution, incest and the evils of capitalism was deemed "immoral and improper" in 1894 by Britain’s Lord Chamberlain. These days the only thing immoral and improper about the play is not to do it justice.
Editor's Note: For more about G.G. Shaw and links to reviews of this and other of his plays at Curtainup, see our Shaw Backgrounder
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