George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, one of the most scandalous and controversial plays of its time, recently opened to a receptive audience at South Pasadena theater company A Noise Within in a spirited new production that brings Shaw’s work to the modern day, with a contemporary female twist, reminding us that more than a hundred years after the play’s first performance in 1902, women still have to fight for their place in the world.
A Noise Within is a theater company that, as stated on the sign outside the bright white building that houses their performance space, takes “classic theater” and adds “modern magic” to create, in the words of Rebecca Bowne, their president, “[plays that] are sure to bring you intellectual depth as well as sheer fun in the theater”.
This “intellectual depth” is certainly a unique fixture in the Los Angeles theatre scene. In New York City, the true heartland of all things theatre, every other street corner has an off-Broadway theater producing an interesting, thoughtful play. However, in Los Angeles, one can walk down Santa Monica Boulevard and find theaters showcasing hopeful actors who are just trying to get noticed so they can work in television, but often not much else. Los Angeles seemingly simply doesn’t have a great thirst for intellectual theater, and thus the classic plays that are performed every year in New York City rarely make it to the West Coast; it is usually only the scrapings of the Broadway season’s biggest hits that ever reach Los Angeles, and these productions are rarely the classics.
For example, just last year Broadway revived three plays: Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Because of a lack of West Coast interest, they never came to Los Angeles. But A Noise Within has been a wellspring of thought and seriousness in the LA theatre desert for the last twenty-five years and is a necessary and unique fixture in the city of Los Angeles. This dynamic theatre group’s most recent production, Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, brings a simple but whimsical use of modern stagecraft, and intelligent acknowledgment of current issues together around a solidly classic play, to spin a bright and compelling story for the modern-day theater-goer.
Written in 1893, Mrs. Warren’s Profession was originally so controversial that when it was first performed in New York in 1905, the entire theatre company was arrested for violating New York City’s version of the Comstock obscenity laws.
Greatly influenced by his predecessor Henrik Ibsen, Shaw was a playwright known for taking on difficult and touchy issues of class and gender, topics covered extensively in perhaps his best-known work, Pygmalion, the 1912 play later turned into the popular Lerner and Loewe musical, My Fair Lady. Written nine years earlier than Pygmalion, Mrs. Warren’s Profession follows the character Vivie Warren, played in A Noise Within’s production by dynamic actress Erika Soto, as she reconnects with her mother, the piece’s title character Kitty Warren, played with emotional intelligence by Judith Scott. Vivie discovers that Kitty has made her vast fortune through prostitution which threatens their newly rekindled relationship. Surrounding the two women and their story are slimy businessman Sir George Crofts, played Jeremy Rabb, Reverend Samuel Gardner, later revealed to potentially be Vivie’s biological father, played by Martin Kildare, Mr. Praed, an artistically inclined man of high society, and the only truly sympathetic male character, to whom Vivie refers as a dear friend, played by Peter James Smith, and Frank Gardner, Vivie’s love-interest played by Adam Faison, a charismatic and care-free young man who ultimately tries to exploit Vivie for her money. Vivie ultimately rejects each of these men except for Mr. Praed, with whom she parts on good terms. She goes on to make a life for herself in the city where it is understood that she is well employed by her friend, a businesswoman.
Although the play was written more than a hundred years ago, A Noise Within’s production rings of things still relevant to our current society including women’s roles and rights in the workplace. It also speaks to a young female generation’s push for a more inclusive future, as portrayed by Vivie Warren’s push to make a career as a mathematician in the male-dominated profession. In Shaw’s words, “the man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time.”
Director Michael Michetti’s choice to have the actors deliver their lines in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone gave the performance a current feel. At first, the modernization was somewhat off-putting, but I was able to adapt. The modern performances of the actors, still arrayed in period costumes and using props of Shaw’s time, were more accessible and recognizable to a 21st-century audience. They were not just bumbling around like characters in a period piece; instead, they came across as real people with real and relatable struggles. In reading the play itself, it seems that Shaw’s work actually speaks to just such a directorial choice. The openness in his dialogue, in which characters blatantly state their hopes, worries, and true intentions, as well as some lack of distinction in different character’s speaking patterns, seems to suggest that his characters were not meant to be flowery, outrageous representations of characters and a time, such as 18th Century playwright William Congreve might have created. It seems that Shaw wanted future generations to take his work and reinterpret it for their time, not paying heed to the original period, as much as to the themes he was expressing.
I have seen tone-modernization used several times in older works, most often in productions of Shakespeare, and although it is perhaps not a historically accurate way of interpreting the playwright’s work, it is a very effective way to engage audiences in a version of the English language and the themes within that is not necessarily familiar to them. In this, too, it seems that Shaw’s fingerprints are visible; he wrote plays about the common people; it is probable that he would have wanted the common people to enjoy them.
Although I found Michetti’s approach generally effective, I did feel the over-amplification of Shaw’s very British humor was not in line with the tone of the play. The second act has a scene with Vivie and Frank Gardner, flirting with each other in a way that can only be described as “exceedingly British”. The two actors brought so much of that manic British wit, an excessive “Oscar Wilde-ness”, to the table that when the scene suddenly became dramatic, and composer Zarah Mahler’s dark, piano-driven song began to play, my connection with the characters was temporarily broken; it was just plain jarring.
Despite this disjunction, the rest of the production seemed to be generally in line with the overall simplicity Michetti rendered, including the elemental set design using just a few props such as several plain chairs and a wheelbarrow of dusty books. Although the set sometimes felt a bit fragmentary, for example, the single lawn chair in the opening scene which lent a feeling of plain clumsiness to the stage, the set design spoke to the modern retelling, providing not so much a focus on grandiloquent decoration or spectacle, but on the themes Shaw was trying to get across to his audience. The part of the set that really exemplified the play was the simple hanging tapestry strung against the back of the stage. Made of pink plastic flowers glued onto wood, the tapestry was used in the openings scenes of the play when we first meet the two main characters, Vivie and Kitty Warren. Although the tapestry was certainly representative of the peaceful countryside in which the first act takes place, its elegant, rather feminine quality spoke to me of the two women who lead the play and their relationships with one another; in many ways it seemed to inform the audience right off the bat that this was a play about women.
The tapestry wasn’t the only aspect that spoke to this theme. The addition of music composed by contemporary female singer-songwriter Zarah Mahler added a modern and decidedly female outlook on the play. The songs had heavy use of piano and strings, as well as melodies and arrangements akin to ground-breaking female songwriters including Tori Amos, Kate Bush, and Fiona Apple, all known for often writing music centering around the female experience. Mahler’s lyrics, delivered in a very contemporary voice, speak of the relationship between the mother and daughter, and of the struggle of being a woman.
Perhaps this is the theme that was most embraced by A Noise Within in creating their production; to reflect on another generation and its struggles, while making its stories accessible and current is vital; changes have been made but progress comes damn slow. It was empowering to see these women’s stories portrayed on stage, but it also made me reflect on the frustration and struggles that women face to this day. This hundred-year-old play speaks of issues that are, unfortunately, still alive; we have a long way to go. And although Mrs. Warren’s Profession is definitely about women, the ideas of human struggle, the search for fairness and justice can speak to all people.
Overall, I feel that A Noise Within and the cast of Mrs. Warren’s Profession succeeded in interpreting Shaw’s words in a way both faithful to the original play and accessible and relevant to our current generation, a generation who, like Vivie Warren, will shape a future for generations to come.