As if you couldn't guess by looking at Classical Theater's playbill cover, Mrs. Warren's profession happens to be the world's oldest – although no self-respecting Victorian madam would ever have worn fishnet stockings. That fetishist leg adornment arrived years later.
Beautiful and independent, Kitty and sister Liz parleyed their beauty into the one lucrative business open for Victorian-era working-class girls. As she says, she had no talent for the stage or the arts or writing, so what was left for a poor girl to do? Her plain and dull half-sisters toiled in menial factory jobs, losing their youth and health, barely scraping by, old before their years. Liz married and became quite respectable. Mrs. Warren did very well indeed, amassing a fortune operating a string of brothels throughout Europe. Daughter Vivie hasn't seen her mother since childhood, raised and schooled in the best English boarding schools and universities. She has wanted for nothing, except, perhaps, the love of a mother. The proper mother, Mom has kept Vivie clueless about her former life. Vivie, a math wiz, has graduated with honors and is about to embark upon a career when Mom comes for a visit. That's when G.B. Shaw opens his tantalizingly modern “problem play,” Mrs. Warren's Profession (1896).
To say Shaw sparkles in Classical Theatre's immensely entertaining version would be understatement. He glows under the treatment. Classical opens its tenth season with superb flair and fireworks in this distinguished production. Superbly entertaining at every moment, Shaw's prickly wit and withering social commentary are savored by the exquisite cast and shot back at us like well-timed volleys. While playing among themselves, they play with us, too. The give-and-take is utterly delightful, joyous in the extreme.
Director Julia Traber, whose last venture (Mary Chase's 1944 chestnut Harvey at A.D. Players) seemed to leave her adrift, has come back in full sail. She overlays Shaw with lively imagination and a sure sense of pace and timing. There's not a false move anywhere, while the tone rings true throughout. She gets Shaw, and by turns sees that we get him too. What an exuberant education.
While Shaw brackets the demimonde with high society, his play is an intimate one using only six characters. Wily a playwright as ever, he never uses the word “prostitution” – we hear “business enterprise,” “hotel” and “establishment” – everything circumspect but clearly delineated. He breached stage convention with Mrs. Warren's Profession, bucking the system as was his wont, knowing full well he'd have trouble with the censoring Lord Chamberlain (the same position that caused trouble to Shakespeare). He did. His play was banned in England until 1925, although for copyright protection it was given two semi-public performances in 1902. Having trouble getting staged in London, Shaw opened in New York in 1905 to great notoriety and a one-night-only performance, when the police closed down the show on indecency charges. Of all places, France banned the play, too, although Parisian brothels had been government-sanctioned since 1804. The world wasn't quite ready for Shaw's clearheaded put-down of sexual hypocrisy.
Mrs. Warren's Profession is hardly indecent, as Shaw lays out his theory that any vocation is good for society. But for Vivie, Shaw's “modern woman,” it isn't her mother's shady past that must have a veil drawn over it; it's that she has continued her profession, albeit on the management side, and therefore she's as conventional as everyone else. Vivie does not want to be conventional; she's her own woman, independent, self-sufficient, smart, not tempted by romantic entanglements. On her own terms, she will have it all. The rift between mother and daughter is unbridgeable. At the end, Vivie sends Kitty away, never to see her again, and turns happily to her actuarial tables, tearing up ex-beau Frank's hopeful message to see her. She's staring afresh, her life begins now.
The cast is splendid, catching every one of Shaw's rejoinders and witticisms. Resplendently gowned in swirling silks that rustle as she passes, Celeste Roberts lets slip a bit of Cockney in her “dearie.” Oh, she's respectable all right, but still a tiger, never forgetting her previous hardscrabble existence as scullery or barmaid. Her memory monologue to Vivie about how and why she got where she is now is a crash course in expressive subtlety. She, too, is a force to be reckoned with, street-smart and savvy. Shanae'a Moore is a picture-perfect Vivie, clever and determined, knowing all too well that any one of her mother's current suitors could be her father. She is adamant about doing what is right for herself. She has her mother's vivacity and tenacity. Moore's a dream in this role.
The men are just as nimble. Dwight Clark, as artist Praed, rather innocent of the goings-on, is gussied up like Oscar Wilde on a good day, a bit prissy and useless. He's Mrs. Warren's companion, but you never believe he's been her lover. His tastes lie elsewhere. However, Tom Long as gruff Sir George Crofts, businessman extraordinaire who bankrolled Kitty in her enterprise, still bears the scars of lost love. He has the audacity to chase Vivie, offering her a life of unbridled luxury and ease. In his great vests and linen pants, he cuts quite a figure of industry, puffing away, all belching smokestacks. Vivie mocks him and sends him packing.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
At one time, she had an eye for Frank, the rector's smug son. Blake Jackson, in a role that's a polar opposite of his ground-breaking Hedwig from last season, is the eternal ne'er-do-well, sponging off his father and coasting idly through life, expecting his Adonis looks and carefree disposition to snatch him a wife. When he discovers that Vivie eschews her mother's future beneficence, he loses interest, but desires to keep her as a friend, like a brother. She tartly refuses. Jackson plays this extremely well, but his makeup is wrong. There's no sun in him; he has a deathly pallor that doesn't suit sporty Frank at all. Ted Doolittle, as the Reverend Gardner, has the patented role of Shaw's Pharisee clergy down to a science. He's sputtering and always on the verge of boil, and his past with Kitty is nobody's secret (he, too, may be Vivie's father, but Shaw draws a wicked blank over the implied incest if Vivie and Frank marry). His religiosity is a sham (he buys his weekly sermons), and Doolittle milks the comedy for all it's worth.
The production is rich but minimal, with Mark A. Lewis's Art Nouveau panels in the background and a desk or sundial or garden hammock to set the place. Tasteful and elegant. Clairemarie Verheyen's costumes radiate the late Victorian era with shirtwaists for Vivie and detailed dresses for Kitty, hair upswept à la Gibson Girl. No one looks out of place. Jon Harvey's sound design is tasteful too, a remix of pop tunes as played by string quartet. I know I heard a Beatles song somewhere, and definitely Cyndi Lauper's “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Very retro and neat.
Mrs. Warren's Profession might once have outraged the prigs, but its sharp zingers can still reach a nerve. When it's performed with such flourish by Classical Theatre Company, we still cheer for Kitty and Vivie. Bashing hypocrites or lauding nonconformists never goes out of style.
Mrs. Warren's Profession continues through October 22 at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays (with post-show talk-back); special performances 8 p.m. October 11 and 16 at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose. For information, call 713-963-9665 or visit classicaltheatre.org. $10 to $25.