The Gingold Theatrical Group once again reminds us of the greatness of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession currently at Theatre Row. It is one of his earliest plays that was banned in London, produced in a private club in 1902 and finally received a public airing in 1925. When it was produced in the US in 1905, the entire cast was arrested via the New York version of the Comstock Law. They were released immediately afterward. Naturally, the controversy created the PR to pack the auditorium for the remainder of the run.
What was the fuss and furor? Shaw, an activist-playwright in addition to his many other talents (journalist, poet, politician, critic) wrote conflict plays exposing egregious social ills, hypocrisies and oppressive institutional class structures contrary to what the culture expected at the time. For example, plays could be about conventional prostitutes “with hearts of gold” who sacrificed themselves for the good of others or who died of consumption.
But God help you if you revealed the corrupt, capitalistic institutions that forced women to starve as factory workers and use their bodies to supplement their below living wages to make it to the next day. Shaw portrays the antithesis of the conventional prostitution accepted by church and decent society, by contriving a Madam for the ages, Mrs. Warren (the superb Haren Ziemba). She has bested the patriarchy and exploited it for her own advantage with the help of Sir George Crofts (the always excellent Robert Cuccioli) a clever exploiter who exploits her and his fellow men supplementing his finances and keeping his Baronet station with all propriety (wink, wink).
The problem is that Mrs. Warren has done this in the name of seeking the conventional-respectable for her daughter in order to purify herself. This is a blindness in Shaw’s astute hands. Indeed, Mrs. Warren’s Profession has as its conflict a mother-daughter disagreement over the conventional unconventional. Miss Vivie (the spot-on Nicole King) disagrees with her mother’s insistence that she receive money the rest of her life instead of Vivie making her own way from her own source of income which she has prepared for at Cambridge.
Shaw humorously reveals Vivie’s unconventionality when she rejects her mother’s largesse. Contrary to the usual mother-daughter relationships, she will not take care of her mother in her old age. By degrees we understand the backstory and ironies. Mrs. Kitty Warren also rejected her mother’s influence and domination. She made something of herself, transforming her low social station to one of wealth, culture and status, ably hobnobbing with the best of society.
The two women are admirably similar in getting over the patriarchy’s dominion. However, their professions are different and indeed, Mrs. Warren’s exploitation of lower class women’s horrific situation is a triumph of selfishness if not an expose of the corruption and hypocrisy of the patriarchal, colonial class system that applauds her surreptitiously for doing this. Of course, Shaw’s truthfulness in revealing the appalling conditions women faced at the time was an outrage to Shaw’s critics and commentators (backed by fat capitalists, most probably).
Mrs. Warren has worked her way up to moneyed respectability entrepreneurially by running high class hotels in various parts of Europe with her partner and friend the Baronet Sir George Crofts. Her “rags to riches” story speaks to the ambition and grit of a self-made woman. The most thrilling fact is that she has done this as a Madam which Shaw could only infer in his play in keeping with the hypocritical, judgmental Victorian Age mores which he twits from start to finish in this play. Mrs. Warren has taken life by the top hat and tails and exploited her beauty instead of allowing other men to exploit her and pay her nothing for it. She has worked out a special deal with Crofts taking the lion’s share of the profits. And she loves the work; it has made her self-sufficient and the gowns and lifestyle and being somebody is just grand.
Vivie, supported by her mother’s funds, unlike most woman of the time who could ill afford a college education, has found a useful career in an industry requiring her skills and education. Thus, she has achieved her own autonomy and refuses to be pinned down to the social prison and folkways of “respectability,” marriage, and being the little lady to some great philandering husband.
Like Kitty Warren, Vivie defines herself. This empowerment reveals a strong character undergirded by disallowing the patriarchy to demean and control her. Nor will she allow women entrapped by the patriarchy (her mother) to belittle her own self-achievement.
The initial scenes open on this conflict when Mrs. Warren comes to visit daughter Vivie to pave the way for her to be brought under her wing and into the fold of her grand, elegant lifestyle with Crofts. The women know little of each other and couldn’t be more disparate. When they discover each other with the help of Kitty’s friends and neighbors, Praed (Alvin Keith in a fine performance of the dandy) Frank (David Lee Huynh, Vivie’s energetic suitor) and Reverend Gardner (the fine Raphael Nash Thompson) the chaos mounts until the jig is up.
Shaw’s sardonic humor and irony is in the situation and the conflict between mother and daughter. Modern audiences will find humor that Vivie stands up to her mother who is appalled that her daughter eschews men, luxury, money and the gaudy cultural life. Instead, she prizes work, work, work. Vivie’s austerity and her rejection of everything that smacks of hypocrisy is downright Puritanical and actually uplifting to see on the one hand, but frightful on the other. Shaw’s depiction of her as a “modern,” young woman is ironic.
Shaw twits all his characters and has fun with them. Crofts’ cheap caddishness as one of the landed gentry is humorous as are Praed’s and Frank’s notions of womanhood and “how it should be.” Shaw twits the Reverend who joins the clergy after sewing his wild oats. He is so devoted to his congregation, he pays for his sermons to be written.
The production is well handled and a superb revelation of Shaw’s work because of the direction (David Staller), on point ensemble, and creative teams’ enhancement of the play’s timeless themes. I did enjoy the monochromatic set’s conceptualization. See this wonderful production to appreciate this master playwright whose currency so appeals. For tickets and times go to their website: https://gingoldgroup.org/mrs-warrens-profession/
The Gingold Theatrical Group noted for its Shaw productions is presenting Caesar & Cleopatra directed by David Staller at Theatre Row. The production is a tightly crafted, well-acted revelation of the historic and intriguing relationship as Shaw conceives may have unfolded between Cleopatra and Caesar. Having thoroughly researched their history to examine both their humanity and extraordinary genius, with economy, Shaw reveals individuals worthy of his depiction in interest, humor and vitality.
The production shepherded by Staller winningly presents the dynamic relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra which engages us with Shaw’s novel/fictional approach toward these icons as he generally follows historical events. The Gingold Theatrical Group has slimmed down Shaw’s version keeping the most salient scenes and consolidating characters providing narration by Ftatateeta (Brenda Braxton in a powerful performance) at the beginning of the production and throughout to fast-forward events and comment on their sequence with poetic persuasion.
Caesar is portrayed by Robert Cuccioli whose presence and manner is believably confident, relaxed and princely even after the exhaustion of having just led his troops to conquer the Egyptians. However, knowing anything about Caesar before Shaw’s revelations at this point in the leader’s life, one realizes his personage that was incredible in stature and nobility was acquired over time. His popularity as a leader was grounded upon his military experience and wisdom bringing success to Rome in extending the Roman Empire. Cuccioli acutely engages as he renders this portrait of a man who doesn’t believe himself past his prime. As Shaw has drawn him and as Cuccioli so aptly portrays him, he sports humor, is playful yet has the perspicacity to note that the vivacious, lively teenage girl at the feet of the Sphinx must be Cleopatra, though he twits her about it after he realizes who she is.
Nevertheless, Caesar astutely withholds his identity, takes charge, and gains her confidence using her information to apprise himself of the situation. With his non-threatening, non-egotistical, down-to-earth demeanor, Cuccioli’s good-humored Caesar sets the very human rules of his budding relationship with Cleopatra which will serve him in stead as he fulfills his plans to set her on the throne of Egypt and further extend the acquisition of Egyptian lands under the control of Rome. Their’s is friendship, a mentorship, and an affectionate liaison which largely remains political in scope as the life and death stakes are high for both of them. It is a union which is beautifully drawn by Shaw and credibly acted by Lim and Cuccioli.
For her part, Teresa Avia Lim’s Cleopatra follows the arc of development that Shaw has delineated for her, revealing her growth from a child who is reckless and afraid, to a Queen tutored by Caesar in her bearing, wisdom and commanding presence. The scenes between Cleopatra and Caesar are the most fascinating, and Cuccioli and Lim authentically portray the concern, affection and nobility of both individuals as they tug at each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As Lim’s Cleopatra learns how to perceive herself a Queen and believe it fully, Caesar guides her to this end yet is warily empowered to overcome the dangers of the civil strife that threatens in Egypt in the rivalry between Ptolemy and Cleopatra for the throne and the betrayal of Romans who have been compromised by Egyptian leaders.
Ptolemy (humorously effected as a puppet of Pothinus) and Pothinus are the villains in Shaw’s work. Perhaps, Rajesh Bose as Pothinus/Ptolemy is too unctuous and oily to empathize with. However, Cuccioli’s Caesar remains respectful and accommodating lifting Pothinus’ stature, however, annoyed, enraged and jealous Cleopatra is of him as her brother’s controller and representative.
As supporting players Rufio (Jeff Applegate) Britannus (Jonathan Hadley) and Apollodorus (Dan Domingues) provide action and sometimes comic relief in furthering the events when Caesar must grapple with the Egyptians, settle for a time at the lighthouse of Pharos, bring Cleopatra in a carpet to him and eventually swim away from the island to save themselves from the Egyptians who are in fast pursuit until a Roman boat rescues them. The adventures continue as they stand up to the Egyptians because of Cleopatra’s actions in killing a favorite and the annoyed Caesar must sustain the fallout as he and his men keep counsel and strategize after realizing the siblings hatred for each other in a dual rulership will never work.
The scene when Caesar chides Cleopatra for her lack of clemency is thematically sound and a highpoint of the production along with the various scenes of action. We note Caesar’s wisdom and strength to pardon his enemies and convert them to friends, ignoring looking at incriminating letters Ptolemy has written. Caesar as a man of action with better things to do scorns wasting his time with prosecutions, preferring negotiation and the softer touch to co-opt those who can most do him harm. This is a strength which Cleopatra finds difficulty believing in or duplicating with her own brother and his followers.
When Roman reinforcements save the day and Caesar prepares to depart, he promises Cleopatra he will send Mark Antony to her and the rest is “history.” Caesar has proven to be an exceptional tutor in politics and power and Cleopatra has learned as much as her personality will allow. Interestingly, we see the seeds of destruction for both individuals in this play. That Caesar does not wipe out his enemies comes back to haunt him, for the conspirators he pardoned (Cassius, et. al) end up assassinating him.
Cleopatra’s yearning for Antony to be with her (a major flaw in her character is her loneliness) ends up destroying their love and bringing their downfall after Mark Antony does follow Caesar’s bidding to go to Egypt and check on the territory that is under Rome. Shaw plants the seeds of this weakness in Cleopatra at the outset of the play and reveals she never quite overcomes this need which is manifest in her searching for Caesar’s attentions which he can never fully give her because he is too involved in military actions and governing wisely or guiding others to govern wisely without malice and revenge.
This amazing relationship that Shaw has drawn concludes with the only kiss that we see. Caesar gently delivers it to Cleopatra’s forehead and claims he will never see her again. At that Ftatateeta sends the audience out into the night with a rejoinder of peace.
Kudos to the cast who is committed to fine ensemble work and the director who guided them to it. Kudos also goes to the creative team whose efforts assisted in elucidating Shaw’s themes and incredible characterizations. These include: Brian Prather (scenic design) Tracy Christensen (costume design) Jamie Roderick (lighting design) Frederick Kennedy (sound design).
Caesar & Cleopatra runs with one intermission at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) until 12th October. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.