With eight fully staged productions in a scant ten months, The Production Company (aka TheProdCo) has quickly established itself as Los Angeles’ most prolific new theater company.  It is also one of the most consistently reliable, opening one excellent production only days after the preceding has closed, with yet another in rehearsal. Amazing!

From the deeply dark comedy of Wit to the sexy adult fun that was The Concept Of Remainders to the acting tour de force that was the recent In On It, TheProdCo keeps turning out quality work, and their current production is no exception.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession is TheProdCo’s first crack at George Bernard Shaw, and a jolly good piece of theater it is.

Like Pygmalion, arguably Shaw’s most famous work (especially in its musical version My Fair Lady), Mrs. Warren’s Profession deals with social issues in the years surrounding the advent of the 20th century.  Eliza Doolittle was a lowly flower girl whose Cockney dialect stood in the way of becoming “a lady.”  Mrs. Warren (Gillian Doyle in this production) was of equally lowly birth, but found her own way of elevating herself to “decent” society.  She became a prostitute, rose in the “profession,” and ended up owning a chain of brothels—two in Brussels, one in Ostend, one in Vienna, and two in Budapest. 

Mrs. Warren’s 22-year-old daughter, Vivie (Joanna Strapp), knows nothing of her mother’s past, and has in fact had little contact with her mother, having been educated in a series of boarding schools. The two women are about to have their first meeting as adults, and as one might expect, the news of Mrs. Warren’s profession will not sit well with her highly educated and highly moralistic daughter.

Other characters in Mrs. Warren’s Profession include Sir George Croft (Skip Pipo), a nattily dressed yet potentially vicious gentleman with designs on Vivie; Frank Gardner (Jeremy Lelliott), a charming but “good for nothing” 20-year-old more interested in Vivie’s fortune than in true love; Mr. Praed (T L Kolman), a rather flamboyantly garbed connoisseur of what he calls “the Gospel of Art” and friend of Mrs. Warren; and the Rev. Samuel Gardner (Barry Saltzman, amusingly melding Basil Rathbone and Cecil Kellaway), a pretentious but fussy clergyman and Frank’s father (and possibly Vivie’s as well).

What makes Mrs. Warren’s Profession hold up so well more than 100 years after its first London production in 1902, besides Shaw’s witty and incisive dialog, is just how contemporary its themes remain today. London audiences were outraged by its focus on prostitution and the possibility of an incestuous relationship between Vivie and Frank.  Though such themes might provoke a far more benign reaction today, they remain staples of fiction and TV soaps.

Take for example this exchange between Mrs. Warren and Vivie which might as easily come from a modern-day drama as a Shavian classic:

MRS. WARREN: Do you think I did what I did because I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn’t rather have gone to college and been a lady if I’d had the chance?
VIVIE: Everybody has some choice, mother. … People are always blaming circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.

Director August Vivirito struck gold when he cast the lovely and elegant Doyle as Mrs. Warren.  The veteran actress (sensational in last season’s Pterodactyls) has the beauty and grace to make the young Mrs. Warren’s allure believable, and the acting chops to reveal the “commoner” hidden not too deeply beneath her ladylike surface.  Matching her quip for quip and blow for blow is the dynamic Strapp in the role of Vivie. That the two actresses could easily pass for mother and daughter makes the casting even more felicitous. 

Perhaps best of all is young Lelliott, cited by StageSceneLA as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for his work in Into The Woods, and still remembered for his heartbreaking turn as Smike in TheProdCo’s Nicholas Nickleby.  Lelliott’s acting is always spontaneous and electric, energizing any scene in which he appears, and never allowing his performance to become a cliché.

Vivirito once again serves not only as director but as scenic and lighting designer, and his set for Mrs. Warren’s profession is a wonder, centered on a modular unit which revolves and expands to turn from the exterior of an English country cottage to its living and dining rooms, to a country garden, and finally to a London office.  Vivirito’s lighting bathes the exteriors in a sunny warmth, and the blackouts which end each of the play’s four acts are striking as always, light remaining a second or two longer on a central character (a Vivirito hallmark).  The cast has been costumed by period designer extraordinaire Shon LeBlanc, their elegance belying an Equity waiver budget.

True, there are moments when the play’s action becomes a tad static (a long scene with both Mrs. Warren and Vivie seated together on a loveseat comes to mind) and a dialect coach would have come in handy at times.  Still, these are relatively minor quibbles in an overall class A production.

The Production Company once again proves with Mrs. Warren’s Profession that quality and quantity can go hand in hand, as here indeed they do.

Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
July 26, 2008

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