Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Mrs. Warren's Profession 2.0
Prostitution, in the usual sense of selling one's body for sex, is the subject of George Bernard Shaw's 1893 play Mrs. Warren's Profession. It was such a taboo topic at the time that the play did not get a theatrical run until many years afterwards, even though the words "prostitute" and "whore" and "brothel" never even appear in the play. I guess the word "profession" attached to a woman's name in those days made it obvious enough what Mrs. Warren did for a living. There weren't many other professional opportunities for women in Victorian England, and that's one of the points of the play.
The problem with putting on Mrs. Warren's Profession nowadays is that prostitution is no longer so scandalous. A few madams have become celebrities, whorehouses are legal in many places around the world, and some people consider sex work empowering for women. So how do you make Shaw's play still pack a punch? Victoria Liberatori, the Producing Artistic Director of Aux Dog Theatre, wanted to do the play and asked Matthew Yde (pronounced Ee-dee), a Shaw scholar and local theater critic, to update it for contemporary performance. He essentially rewrote the whole thing, although keeping Shaw's characters and basic plot, and he did a terrific job of it.
If being a prostitute or madam has lost its stigma, human trafficking has not. Mrs. Warren and her "business partner" George Crofts now run high-class brothels in several European cities, and get their workers that way. To make the two even more despicable, Yde has them pretend to be philanthropic by setting up orphanages, the real purpose of which is to feed girls and boys into the system. (None of this is in the Shaw original.) I think Yde goes a little overboard by bringing in mind control and trans-cranial brain stimulation as methods practiced on the children, which to me has the whiff of unproven conspiracy theory. The sex trade trafficking and orphanages are bad enough.
The central conflict of the play is between Mrs. Warren and her daughter Vivie. Mrs. Warren has provided a comfortable upbringing for Vivie, but was almost never there, farming her out to boarding schools and paying for her to go to Harvard. (This version of the play is set on the east coast of America in 2016.) Mrs. Warren comes back to the States, thinking that she can now be a mother to the daughter she has neglected for so long. Not quite so easy. Vivie, being a liberal-minded young woman, is not all that shocked when she finds out that her mother was a prostitute and a madam, but she draws the line when she learns about the human trafficking and the orphanages, and that her mother is still in the business. Can mother and daughter ever reconcile?
Shaw was not a sentimentalist (check out the ending of Pygmalion versus the ending of My Fair Lady), but Yde rewrites the ending out of the conviction that any person, no matter how sinful, can be forgiven and should be given an opportunity for redemption. I'm still not sure which conclusion, Shaw's or Yde's, is more true to life.
There are other plot points which are better left for you to discover as you watch the play. Shaw's script is quite concise, but at the same time has extraneous material, probably to pad it out into four acts. There are only six characters, and yet Mr. Pansolini (in the original, he's Mr. Praed) is pretty superfluous. Yde picks up on a subtle hint I would have missed in Shaw's original that this man is most likely gay, and here he declares it forthrightly. The minister Gardner likewise has not much to do. Both of these roles, however, are well played by Dean Squibb and Scott Sharot, respectively.
Phillip Shortell can always be counted on to be excellent. He's older than Shaw intended (Crofts should be about 50), but that's no matter. Shortell plays the capitalist with no conscience as the brute that he is, without softening him at all. Nick Pippin has been good in other roles I've seen him in, but here he is miscast as Vivie's suitor Frank Gardner. It's hard to tell whether he is coming on to Vivie and to Mrs. Warren, or to Pansolini. I guess that could be the point, that he tries to seduce everybody, but it only would work if he showed more machismo and confidence in his own sex appeal.
Abby Van Gerpen does a generally fine job as Vivie, but is a little too stoic during the big revelations about her mother's life. She should be shaken to the core, but I didn't see it. Bridget Kelly is superb, as usual, as Mrs. Warren, worldly wise, more than a little tough, but still capable of being heartbroken, and altogether human. Overall, the actors are directed well by Yde, who used to be an actor himself.
There's not much to comment on about the technical side of things, there being few props or lighting cues. However, the set is a mystery. Designed by Dean Squibb and executed by him and Susan Roden, it is defiantly unrealistic: a mural on three walls with faces peering out from behind what appear to be draperies, behind a row of chains. I don't know if this is what the designers had in mind, but to me it's Plato's cave, in which the masses of people are chained in darkness and allowed to know only what the powers that be allow them to see. This is a point brought up saliently in Yde's script, that the puppet-masters of our lives are the unseen power brokers. There is also a line early on (not in Shaw) about Plato's contention that children should be brought up apart from their parents (Plato intends this only for that small group destined to be philosopher-kings, but it has been widely misinterpreted). If the set is not meant to be Plato's cave, at least it's thought-provoking. See what you think. As for me, I think you should see this play.
Mrs. Warren's Profession 2.0, Through February 25, 2018, at the Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill, 3011 Monte Vista Blvd NE in Albuquerque NM. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets $8 to $18. Info at auxdogtheatre.org or 505-596-0607.