Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Mrs. Warren's Profession and
Class, the limited options available to women and capitalism's misuse of the poor are at the heart of George Bernard Shaw's 1894 comedy, Mrs. Warren's Profession, and, in this time of economic need, as the gap between the very rich and growing poor widens and as the welfare safety net grows thinner, the Guthrie's production feels fresh and timely.
Mrs. Warren's Profession tells of Vivie Warren, a thoroughly emancipated young woman who is not only one of the early women graduates from Cambridge University, but a graduate with high honors. Her mother, Mrs. Warren, has provided Vivie with a comfortable life and an education in boarding schools, but Vivie hardly knows her mother. When they meet in the country, with some of Mrs. Warren's friends, Vivie learns of her mother's childhood destitution and her climb out of poverty through prostitution. She accepts and is sympathetic to her mother's decision to turn to prostitution. But she can't forgive her mother and her titled friends for continuing to profit from Mrs. Warren's management of a string of brothels on the continent. Now, Vivie must choose between the advantages her mother's income afford her and a chance for respectable married life, or the harder life of self-sufficiency and a clear conscience.
The play demands two strong actors to fill the roles of Vivie and her mother, as they lock in a battle of wills to control Vivie's destiny. Neither character is entirely likeable, yet both are admirable. Vivienne Benesch excels as the capable and determined young Vivie; she's spry, chilly and absolute. In the demanding role of Mrs. Warren, which requires both a standard British and cockney accent, Caitlin O'Connell captures her character's bombast and her acute disappointment. Director Lisa Peterson wisely resists the temptation to overplay Mrs. Warren's essential commonness; it lurks, understated in her just over-the-top taste in dress and her too cozy manner. This restraint makes Mrs. Warren's sudden regression to her class roots all the more powerful.
Among the other characters, Leo Kittay charms as Vivie's boyish suitor, Frank. He has all the grace, wit and intelligence that privilege affords, and he's determinedly useless.
Like Mrs. Warren's background that cannot be denied, Michael Yeargan's towering backdrop of a severe brick tenement building looms oppressively behind each set. This dark wall might work metaphorically, but it's distracting to Yeargen's dream set of a cottage garden, filled with flowering Queen Anne's lace. It's even more discombobulating when the unsentimental Vivie finds beauty in a moonlit country night and looks up at a moon fractured in the prison-like windows of the backdrop.
The power of this production lies in the fine acting and the tweaking of our middle-class complacency in economic hard times. One hundred and nineteen years after Shaw wrote the play, we continue to tolerate entrenched poverty, particularly for women, and we choose not to think about those who turn to the degradation of prostitution as an option for survival.
Mrs. Warren's Profession, January 11 - February 16. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7 p.m. Matinees on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. $16 -$46. Guthrie Theater, 725, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Call: 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.
-- Elizabeth Weir
In Queen Nanny, Queen Nanny!, the story of a Jamaican national heroine and a leader of the struggle for independence against the British, the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater does an excellent job with what it does best, the puppetry. Unfortunately, scriptwriting is not what it does best. Though great music and puppetry still make the production enjoyable, Elisha Whittington (a staff member at HOBT) and Djola Branner have written a simplistic script for a story that has much more potential.
The story is framed in the context of a grandfather telling a story to his American granddaughter. There are promising hints of a theme of intergenerational adjustment in an immigrant family, but these are not explored fully as the story turns to that of Queen Nanny. The history of Queen Nanny provides rich material, recounting the experiences of a young noblewoman from Ghana who travels to Jamaica where she is enslaved by the British and, after much suffering and brutality, escapes to lead a group of free slaves in rebellion against the British.
As a simple history, the play functions well-enough communicating the basic facts of this incredible woman's life and achievements; however, it leaves many themes untouched. A more thought provoking script could have provided insight into the subtleties of slavery and colonialism (Queen Nanny herself has a servant), but instead relies on a black and white dichotomy which leaves these complexities unexplored. The power of belief in oneself, in ancestors, in culture, and in magic are other possibilities left at the surface level.
The supporting elements of set design, puppetry, and music are fantastic, but the central pillars of script and acting feel like distractions. Patricia Brown lacks presence as Queen Nanny, struggling to use her body and voice to hold the audience's attention as her face is hidden behind a half-mask. Roxane Wallace does slightly better with the same challenges, though in a much smaller part. Both Brown and Wallace move well, but one feels there is still more undiscovered potential in the rich history of African and Jamaican dance. The music provided by Aaron Barnell and Mankwe Ndosi is excellent, played with great timing, authenticity and energy, and the set, designed by visual artist Tacoumba Aiken, is visually beautiful, holding many creative hidden surprises which help to make the puppetry so captivating.
Accents vary widely, from the excellent Jamaican of the grandfather to the distractingly un-British accent of the sergeant and the oddly thin voices of the ancestors.
The story of Queen Nanny certainly deserves to be told and an admirable attempt is made, but I couldn't help feeling that more effort had gone into the set and puppetry of the production than into the script and acting. It would be a shame if audiences came to assume that puppet theater could not wrestle with complex issues, because in past productions HOB has clearly demonstrated the power of the medium.
Queen Nanny, Queen Nanny! Runs January 17-February 9th: Fridays 7:30 pm, Saturdays 2:00 and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $18 for adults and $13 for children, seniors and groups of ten or more. In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, 1500 E. Lake St., Minneapolis. Call: (612) 721-2535 or visit www.hobt.org.Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area