THE BASICS: This early Shaw offering (1902), highly controversial in its day, has been remounted at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where it plays in repertory through Oct 16th. Eda Holmes directs a cast of six. It is being performed with a single intermission; the running time is slightly under 2 ½ hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Vivie, an intelligent, pragmatic young woman who has just graduated from Cambridge with honors, returns home. Here she is given her first real opportunity to get to know her wealthy, mysterious mother. Imagine her surprise to learn that Kitty Warren has made her way first as a prostitute, and later as the canny manager of a string of European brothels. As her mother tells of her early travails, Vivie’s heart melts, but there is still another important revelation, one that the new mother/daughter relationship may not be able to survive…
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: The play, which acidly illuminates the lack of decent opportunities for poor and working class women in Shaw’s day, is still (sadly) relevant in 2016. The plot is simple and straightforward, the language pithy, the observations trenchant. With Vivie and Kitty, Shaw has created a sublime study in opposites. The play is, quite simply, a beaut.
Now for the less happy news: Director Eda Holmes has decided to frame the piece as a modern day replica of, and homage to, MRS WARREN’S first “run”, in a private men’s club in London in 1902. The reason, according to the program notes, is to more fully emphasize “the context of male privilege”. This is wrong-headed, and creates a lot of problems. First of all, Shaw never intended for his play to be presented in this sort of meagre, catch-as catch-can fashion. He simply settled for it. The intended London production was in fact shuttered by officials who felt it to be too radical and too lewd for public consumption. (The ban lasted an amazing 27 years!). Ms Holmes has her actors running around reciting the stage directions, showing us a library table or a statue, and explaining that we are seeing a little garden or a sundial! It’s preposterous, and undercuts the playwright in a wholly unacceptable fashion! Would it really be too boring, too passe, to present this terrific play as written?? As for the context of male privilege, keeping MRS WARREN in its proper time period would surely have been the best thing for it. Instead, we are supposedly in 2002, watching a centennial revival. The costume designer, suffering under the burden of this conceit, has offered up a mishmash of mainly latter day styles that leaves us… simply baffled.
The cast is quite good on the whole. Nicole Underhay tackles the complicated title role with gusto. Thom Marriott is wonderfully civil/repulsive as Kitty’s long time business partner, Sir George Crofts. I especially liked Wade Bogert-O’Brien as the waggish Frank Gardner, Vivie’s would be husband, and Shaw’s caustic mouthpiece.
Now for the less happy news: Jennifer Dzialoszynski was not a good choice for the key role of Vivie. It’s not that she’s a bad actor, not at all. But her diminutive stature works against her in a role that cries out for a young Katharine Hepburn. Not only is she much the shortest person in the cast, she is decked out in some very unflattering clothes (esp. those first act jeans) that call attention to things that they shouldn’t. Further, director Holmes has her throwing herself on the furniture in a careless, teenager-y way that works against the character’s thoughtful, measured, stainless-steel persona.
IN SUM: Outstanding play. I’m not all that thrilled with the present mounting, however!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!