With its socialist yoking of sex and commerce and marriage and whoredom, Mrs. Warren's Profession, George Bernard Shaw's 1893 play, was quite the shocker in its day. Banned in England at the end of the 19th century, a New York production's cast and crew were arrested in 1905 and it was again banned -- as late as 1955 -- in Paris as well.
In modern times, when nothing is risqué, least of all ideas, the play's radicalism is tricky to tap. Timothy Near's room-temperature revival of the play, for The California Shakespeare Festival, does little to generate the excitement of Shaw's daring ideas.
The play begins with the putting on of layers and layers of feminine undergarments -- to the forlorn strains of Sinead O'Connor's "Factory Girl". It's a perfect selection that suggests a new approach to a period melodrama. O'Connor sings, "I've gold in my pocket and silver as well/No more will I answer that factory call." The stoic resignation in her voice brings a fresh resonance to the plight of women of meager means and scant choices.
Rather than setting the tone for a tale that will mirror the lyrics, the song kinda outshines it.
While there's some intrigue beneath the layers of Victorian frockery and the performances are mostly competent, this new production hardly socks it to us the way any show about sex and money ought to.
Vivie Warren, with her strong handshake, no nonsense demeanor and pleasure in cigars, is a classic Shavian feminist. A Cambridge mathematician, who is all business and no sentimentality, Vivie is an unconventionally modern girl, played a bit too conventionally by Anna Bullards. Having been educated at consecutive boarding school, she hardly knows her mother and when Mrs. Warrren arrives, Vivie is intent on knowing more. Specifically, she wants to know who her father is. As it turns out, a number of the men in Mrs. Warren's wake are also wondering what part they may play in Vivie's parentage.
Dropping her refined accent, "Mrs." Warren tells her tale of the white lead factory, the starvation wages, the scullery work and the indelicate industry that ultimately put her daughter through school and made her quite comfortable, thank you.
Shaw's rebuke of the hypocrisy of his culture is deft: "As if a marriage ceremony makes any difference in the right or wrong of the thing," Mrs. Warren proffers.
But the moral relativism of it all becomes more complex when Vivie, who had embraced her mother and admired her resilience, learns more and retracts her support. When she finds out that her mother continues to practice this trade -- not for necessity, but because she has become accustomed to the finer things in life, Vivie is shocked and outraged at her mother's capitalist greed.
Stacey Ross has moments of authentic intensity as Mrs. Warren, even though her speedy delivery isn't always effective. Andy Murray is a familiar Victorian villain, whose marriage proposal to Vivie reminds us that wives are merely upper crust prostitutes.
There's a rector (Rod Gnapp) with a checkered past, his son (Richard Thieriot), a free-thinking Oscar Wild-esque loaf-about and an artist (Dan Hiatt) to contrast Vivie's pragmatism.
Erik Flatmo's appealing set design and Meg Neville's striking costumes look great against the pale mountains at Orinda's amphitheater. The music is, once again, imaginative -- in one affecting, wordless scene, mother and daughter dance to a classically arranged instrumental of Cindy Lauper's "Time After Time." Later, there's Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd ("Money", of course.)
It's these between-the-text flourishes that give this performance a distinct personality. And one wishes there were more original choices because a conventional adaptation of a play that scorns convention just won't do.
Mrs. Warren's Profession runs through August 1, 2010 at Bruns Amphitheater. For tickets and information visit calshakes.org.