'Tis pity Mother is a whore. That's the theme of George Bernard Shaw's drawing-room drama Mrs. Warren's Profession, now getting a sprightly production at Theatre Three. Mother is Kitty Warren, wealthy, middle-aged owner of a chain of bawdy "private hotels'' across Europe. Her adult daughter, Vivie, has been kept in the dark about Mama's bordello business and afforded an education and a generous allowance. A graduate of Cambridge, Vivie aims for a business career of her own, one that doesn't profit from the oldest profession. When she discovers the true source of her mother's income, Vivie is as shocked and disillusioned as Meadow Soprano realizing father Tony doesn't really work in "waste management.''
The play is pretty quaint stuff by modern standards. The word "prostitution" isn't even said aloud; it's simply alluded to. But Mrs. Warren's unapologetic attitude toward her call-girl calling was a mite upsetting to uptight Victorian-era sensibilities. The subject matter so scandalized the toffs back in 1893, Mrs. Warren's Profession was banned from the London stage till 1902.
Shaw wrote it not to cause a stink but to make a bold indictment against the stinking status of women in the late 19th century. Single girls and working-class widows had few choices of income then. They could toil for pennies a day as factory workers, scullery maids or bar girls, or they could sell their bodies to keep body and soul together.
In the one important scene in the play, Kitty (played by Elizabeth Rothan) argues to straitlaced Vivie (Shanna Riddle) that it was financial hardship and not depravity that forced her into the game as a young woman. "Why shouldn't I have done it?" Kitty says about entering the business of sin. "The house in Brussels was real high-class, a much better place for a woman to be in than the factory where Aunt Jane got poisoned. None of the girls were ever treated as I was treated in the scullery of that temperance place, or at the Waterloo bar, or at home. Would you have had me stay in them and become a worn-out old drudge before I was 40?''
Vivie will come to understand her mother's choice, but their relationship will never heal. One other ugly family secret also is revealed to Vivie that spoils her plan to marry Frank, the upper-class pretty boy who's chasing her. This story ends on the saddest of notes.
That's not to say it's a sad play. Shaw's buoyant characters and their crisp, witty conversations make Mrs. Warren's Profession easy to watch. The actors in Theatre Three's production (reviewed at a preview) put it all across with great élan and nearly impeccable accents. Shanna Riddle shows a determined perkiness as the stuck-up but likable Vivie. Elizabeth Rothan, yellow hair tumbled in a mess of curls, voraciously tears into the title character, using a Cockney bray that betrays her character's background and provides a telling contrast to Vivie's upper-crust vowels. Their poignant scenes together bring out the best in both actresses.
As Mr. Praed, a fey artist who's a longtime friend and trusted confidante of Kitty's, R Bruce Elliott glides onstage in a pale linen suit and charms every molecule in the air. As Vivie's suitor, the insipid Frank Gardner, Ashley Wood is a bounding beagle puppy, eager to bump the leg of any female in the room. Garrett Schenck doesn't do quite as much with his Reverend Gardner character as he probably should. Maybe he's distracted by the false whiskers glued to his cheeks. Director Jac Alder cast his actors well and seems to have handled all of them with a light touch. At least that's how it appears to the audience.
On the technical side, this is the nicest-looking production Theatre Three has mounted in a long time. Harland Wright's simple set pieces evoke a sunny English garden and neat drawing rooms. Patty Korbelic Williams' costume designs avoid Victorian clichés and give each character a signature color. For Kitty Warren, it's a deep and sexy shade of grape that clashes against innocent daughter Vivie's pale yellow.
Edge-of-the-seat theater it's not. But for those interested in certain classical pieces that aren't performed all that often, this well-acted production flows with the elegant style of posh tea at the Ritz.
As this review was going to press, I received the sad news that Lynn Mathis, who played Sir George Crofts in Mrs. Warren's Profession, died suddenly following the October 18 performance. Mathis, 49, was one of Dallas' finest actors and over the past 15 years had played major roles at Theatre Three, Dallas Theater Center, Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas Children's Theater and other stages. Among his most memorable roles were his King Lear at Shakespeare Festival of Dallas and his Jacob Marley in DTC's A Christmas Carol. He will be seen onscreen this winter in the new film The Alamo. A teacher of Shakespeare at KD Studios, Mathis was highly regarded by his students, as well as by the many actors and directors who had worked with him. Theatre Three director Jac Alder will step into the role of Crofts in Mrs. Warren's Profession until the part can be recast. Each performance of the play will be dedicated to Mathis, Alder says.
A mother and daughter also dominate Teatro Dallas' WomaNightFear, an hour-long Day of the Dead drama that's the first production onstage at the new Latino Cultural Center near downtown. Adapted by director Cora Cardona from the Japanese Onibaba, the uneven tale unfolds as a mythical pageant about war and death in ancient Mexico.
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The production is a disappointing inaugural event for this new space. The acting is wooden and amateurish. Cardona has let the cast indulge in far too much screaming, and between shrieks, the feral characters squat and slurp food in a thoroughly disgusting fashion.
The theater itself is a letdown, too. Dallas is woefully short of performance spaces. New theater companies, and there seems to be another one popping up every month, have been forced to stage works in art galleries, conference rooms and warehouses, anywhere some folding chairs and a few clip lights can create the illusion of theater.
The Latino Cultural Center's theater is a traditional proscenium design, but nobody bothered to work out the acoustics, which are abysmal. With its high vaulted ceiling over the audience, the space bounces voices around like echoes against a canyon wall. Unmiked, the performers in WomaNightFear can't be understood unless they come far downstage and speak right at the audience. Otherwise, their dialogue is swallowed by the echo. I swear I heard one of them ask, "Where is the Roquefort cheese?'' But that can't be right. Doesn't help that the sound designer for this production has imposed an electronic echo effect in some scenes. Enough already-already-already.
Hard to say what this play is about. In a series of brief, disjointed episodes, everyone shouts, acts hysterical and cavorts over the multilevel set like mad Martha Graham dancers. There's a mother and daughter who live in a straw hut. Up the hill lives a bald guy in a white loincloth who looks like Yul Brynner without the six-pack abs. He screams and dances around waving a hatchet. A fat guy painted red appears once or twice but doesn't do much. At least he doesn't scream. A dancer in a skeleton-painted leotard strikes poses over a pit of death that some characters eventually fall or jump into. Bald guy and the girl get naked and engage in some strenuous fake-fornicating in his hut. Mama doffs her top and screams a bunch and tries to mount baldy. Daughter screams. A creepy thing with a death's head mask and hair like Don King stands over the pit and screams. And if this play had gone on one minute longer, I would have screamed, too, and jumped right into that pit.