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It would be tough, in the English-speaking theatrical canon, to find any playwright more unromantic than George Bernard Shaw. His view of the social arrangements of adult life in late Victorian and early 20th century Britain were quite clear in the arguments his plays made (and continue to make) about the entire subject. For him, the middle class of his era, marriage was a financial arrangement, not a romantic endeavor. For lower classes, there was simply no time for romance in the dual pushes to eke out a living and, if possible, rise out of dangerous and debilitating poverty.
This view shows up particularly in Shaw’s women. From Eliza Doolittle’s determination to achieve a safer self-sufficiency, to – in one of his most “shocking” plays at the time – Kitty Warren, who funds (albeit from a distance) the raising of her very much middle class, educated daughter by successfully operating a string of houses of prostitution on the continent, they show a specific focus on breaking social barriers and avoiding the seemingly inevitable fates of women in their time.
Indeed, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” now in repertory at A Noise Within in Pasadena, balances the “modern” middle class working woman, Vivie Warren, with her lower class, but very, if scandalously successful mother Kitty in ways which pinpoint the plight of both. For Vivie, her focus is becoming a professional. Her alternative is marriage, where she is seen as a prize mostly for the inheritance she will bring with her. For Kitty, the choice was “decent” jobs which were either at poverty wages or involved potentially deadly labor, or deciding to treat sex as the business transaction Shaw was always certain it was.
Can these two women come to an understanding which surmounts the conventional reactions of their day? In this case, being Shavian, the characters’ disconnects may not be the predictable. On the other hand, the men who are sure they know what will, or should happen, pretty much are.
Director Michael Michetti has put a liveliness of spirit into what is admittedly a particularly talky Shaw play by centering it all on character. Still, when it becomes important that you hear the points being made, one cannot help acknowledge Shaw’s tendency toward (as a friend passionate about Shaw once said) beautifully costumed panel discussions. By then, thanks to Michetti, you care enough about the people having the discussions to stop, sit and listen, as well as to absorb a few vital non-verbal moments Michetti uses to bring the play’s major point home.
This is all achievable thanks to a diverse and skilled ensemble cast. Erika Soto makes Vivie convincingly earnest in her desire to be productive in the world, with a specific sense of internal morality which makes her resolute rather than stiff, especially in relation to Kitty. Judith Scott, as Kitty, radiates the inequivocal confidence in her own decisions which underscores the entire character: a lack of apology for succeeding outside the very middle class mores she wishes upon her daughter.
As the young gentleman whose pursuit of Vivie eventually carries more the scent of the mercenary than the romantic, Adam Faison radiates a boyish charm with just the right edge of selfishness. As the profoundly ineffective rector – the young man’s father – whose concern for image diminishes him, Martin Kildare huffs about with appropriate superficiality.
Yet the greatest contrast comes from Jeremy Rabb’s Sir George, Kitty’s business partner, whose values lie solely in a pragmatic capitalism, seeing even the people with which he surrounds himself primarily with an eye to profit. This in balance to Peter James Smith’s Mr. Praed, Kitty’s earnest friend, given a gentle warmth which emphasizes the genuine feeling and concern which balances well against the self-interest of the other men of the piece.
All work in a seamless flow on Sara Ryung Clement’s elemental set, which allows quick movement of setting when needed, and emphasizes the people and the words in important ways.
Shaw is never as easy as one would think. Though “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” caused demonstrations and legal actions upon its premieres, both in Britain and the the US, when one sits and listens to what is actually being spoken – particularly in the final scenes – what the play has to say about class, culture, women’s roles and parental ambition proves as powerful today as it was a century ago: less shocking on a superficial level, but still disturbing in a more elemental way.
For this reason, not to mention the sheer understanding that a Shaw play is a treat for the intellect, ANW’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is worth a look. Go to listen. Go to ponder. This show plays in repertory with “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot”.
What: “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” When: Through November 18: 7:00 p.m. October 22 and November 12, 7:30 p.m. November 2, 8 p.m. October 28 and November 3, 17 and 18, with matinees at 2 p.m. October 22 and 28 and November 12 and 18 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
I confess. I love the plays of George Bernard Shaw. When well done, even the most prosy of them can be a fun, and his best work shines with a kind of internal delight, as his objective of entertaining while saying something societally important proves a success. Such a play, and such a production is the newly opened “You Never Can Tell” at A Noise Within. Gifted with virtually perfect casting, the intelligent and lively direction of Stephanie Shroyer, and solid visuals, it just works. And when Shaw works, you’re in for a treat.
To be frank, the play is one of Shaw’s better discussions of “the modern woman,” circa 1897: tackling their right to independent thought, the assumption of male supremacy in marriage, and the ability of forward thinkers to fit into British society. That some of its essential themes are still relevant today proves why such plays are still staples of English-speaking theater.
Deborah Strang is Mrs. Clandon, a writer famed for books on “The 20th Century Woman” who has returned with her young adult children from Madeira to a local British seaside resort. Strang gives her character that kind of inborn confidence which makes her sure she knows not only what is good for women in general, but for her own children: older daughter Gloria and somewhat younger twins Dolly and Philip. Whether they, especially Gloria, can live up to those expectations, or even want to in the end, is another matter of course.
Richy Storrs and Erika Soto are a hoot as the twins, completely unable to hold their tongues on any subject, ferociously curious and absolutely untamable. Jill Renner gives Gloria a wonderful combination of staunchness and indecision, as she gradually falls for a penniless dentist with comparatively old fashioned ideas she reaches to challenge. Jeremy Rabb, as Mrs. Clandon’s old friend and solicitor personifies the staid narrow-mindedness of the matured free thinker, while Apollo Dukakis finds great humor in the sour old man who is both the dentist’s landlord and Mrs. Clandon’s abandoned husband.
Still, the best performances of this splendid company have to be Kasey Mahaffy, complete in tone and body language as the very Shavian dentist – swayed by passions, yet convinced he understands women, and Wesley Mann as the tolerant and intensely observant waiter who cares for the Clandons at their hotel. Also worthy of note in a brief but delightfully “deus ex machina” role is Freddy Douglas as the waiter’s barrister son.
Yet to list the individual performers and their fine work is only the half of it. The sense of ensemble is palpable. The timing is right on point throughout. The cleverness of the direction extends even to a needed shift in Don Llewellyn’s elaborate and very three-dimensional set, which becomes almost a character during the move. Angela Balogh Calin gives the costuming a solid polish, and in general the atmosphere places the play in just the right point in time.
“You Never Can Tell” is intelligent, and very funny. Though Shaw’s focus is on the artificial and damaging understanding of women as a lesser sex, he couches the whole thing as almost a farce – a terrific spoonful of sugar for his more serious message. The result is a production well worth seeing. “You Never Can Tell” plays in repertory with “Romeo and Juliet” and soon with “6 Characters in Search of an Author.”
What: “You Never Can Tell” When: Through May 15, 7 p.m. March 20, April 24 and May 15, 7:30 p.m. April 14 and May 5, 8 p.m. April 9 and 30, with 2 p.m. matinees March 20, April 9, 24 and 30 and May 15 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44, with student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
It is fascinating how a play can become so familiar one can forget where it came from. Certainly, everyone knows that they know George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but mostly because most have seen “My Fair Lady,” the highly romanticized musical (later film) based on the play. Yet, the original play was not about romance, but about societal equality and intellectual independence. Now, at the Pasadena Playhouse, one can experience a profound and polished production of Shaw’s original play, as originally written. For those sure they are familiar with the piece, this can prove revelatory.
Of course the play – whose name comes from the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – has a general plot which needs little explanation. The obnoxiously spoiled, and rather childish linguistics expert Henry Higgins, aided by the somewhat fusty Col. Pickering, takes on the task of transforming one Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street vendor, into a young lady who can pass as a duchess at a society event. What he doesn’t count on is Eliza’s intellect and free will, and her determination not to be seen as an object. In the end, the play becomes a condemnation of the image of women in late Victorian society – one which resonates remarkably clearly into the 21st Century.
Director Jessica Kubzansky has chosen to go back to the original script, leaving off later additions of embassy balls and semi-romantic returns. This is, frankly, extremely satisfying, as I have personally rebelled against the ending given in “My Fair Lady” since I first saw it on stage as a pre-teen. Shaw’s best works are often intellectual discussions with a plot, and here the complex and immensely satisfying battle of wits between Eliza and Higgins gets to stand on its own, making the point Shaw was actually out to make. That makes the play important again.
Paige Lindsey White makes a convincing Eliza. Her body language changes subtly as she matures, and her beauty proves equally subtle: a sharpness softened by care and carriage. This makes the transformation particularly satisfying, and (despite an English professor long ago who claimed it impossible) quite convincing. Bruce Turk makes Higgins both articulately intellectual and ridiculously childish – more a brat than a hermit. It works wonderfully well, adding a layer of comedy a more grounded character could not. Stan Egi gives Col. Pickering a decidedly unaware feel, as if he exists mostly on manners rather than intellectual rigor. All three give a lovely balance to the entire production.
Also worthy of high praise are Ellen Crawford, far less shockable and far more fatalistically practical than usual as Higgins’ housekeeper. Time Winters makes Eliza’s father less goofy and far more disturbed by his change of fortunes, and it works. Most particularly, Mary Anne McGarry gives an aura of wisdom and worry – the articulate view of a woman with a deep understanding of the limitations of womanhood – as Higgins’ mother. Alex Knox and Carolyn Ratteray each have deeply comic moments as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his sister Clara, while Lynn Milgrim, as their mother, becomes symbolic of the comparatively piteous condition of a poor and widowed society woman.
Still, the unifying force and the significant vision are Kubzansky’s. She takes characters which can easily become prosy, and meshes them into an interesting blend of attitudes and desires one can truly connect with. Pacing and understanding flow easily – and that’s saying something when one speaks of Shavian works.
Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has created an elemental set which moves swiftly from scene to scene, allowing the flow of what is essentially an episodic tale to become remarkably even. Leah Piehl’s costuming holds fairly true to the period, and provides subtle personality clues along the way.
In short, this “Pygmalion” gets it right, start to finish. This play rarely has a chance to stand on its own, and project the message Shaw was trying to get across. This time, it does, and that is pure delight for anyone who loves a good intellectual argument.
What: “Pygmalion” When: Through April 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating at $125.00 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
Morality’s the Thing: Well-played ethical wrangling in Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” at A Noise Within
Unless you are particularly fascinated by the man’s work, most people never get around to the more obscure plays of George Bernard Shaw. After “Pygmalion,” “Major Barbara,” “Caesar and Cleopatra,” and perhaps “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” the other plays he wrote – and there were more than 50 – are rarely seen, at least in one piece. Indeed, I have heard many of his later works codified as “costumed panel discussions.” It is hard to make such ideological commentaries theatrical. But it isn’t impossible.
Which brings me to A Noise Within’s new production of “The Doctor’s Dilemma.” The play, to which Shaw wrote (as he sometimes did) a philosophical introduction longer than the play itself, manages to bring together his general distrust for the medical profession, his fascination with the limitations of the morality of his day, and his personal, unique logic. It is left to director Damaso Rodriguez to make the thing come to life – to have us care in a more than intellectual way about characters who exist primarily to challenge the intellect. That this is managed, more often than not, is due to Rodriguez’s own vision and a precise and polished ensemble cast.
Sir Colenso Rodgeon has, it appears, come up with a treatment for tuberculosis. Still in the experimental stages, the list of his patients must be limited by his funding and the size of his staff. That list is full when the beautiful wife of an artist arrives to beg her husband be included in his study because of his larger value to society. Then, just as this is to move forward, information about an indigent but completely selfless fellow physician’s equally profound illness, and about the questionable morality of the artist, bring him up short. How should this possible life or death decision be made?
Geoff Elliott plays Rodgeon as a gentle man nonetheless supremely confident in his own abilities and, despite his protestations, made comfortable by his ability to play god. His somewhat childish underpinnings are only revealed in his choice of housekeepers – a nurturing, wise old woman played with delightful individuality by Deborah Strang.
Among the other medical men who gather around him, Apollo Dukakis stumbles a bit, but harrumphs nicely as a retired old-time medical man. Robertson Dean and Freddy Douglas make distinctly individual characters out of the two doctors obsessed with their differing, single diagnoses for all ailments. David LM McIntyre’s brief appearance as their destitute yet honorable, ill colleague manages to be adamantly noble and mildly pitiful at once.
Yet, when it comes to creating characters worth remembering, it is Jason Dechert’s charmingly amoral artist whose confident calm and disarmingly illogical logic power the play’s best moments. Combined with Jules Willcox as the archetypical Shavian heroine – confident in her power of persuasion and far more observant than given credit for – they pin this whole piece together. Rafael Goldstein and Kelly Ehlert round out the cast in minor but important roles.
Nods also to Susah Gratch, whose ability to create a semblance of Victorian solidity from airy bits of set both grounds and lightens the piece. Leah Piehl’s costumes hint at the transitional nature of the time (the play was written in 1911), though some of Willcox’s finery seems to float a bit much between periods.
Still, it must be said that the root of the play, and the main argument one will walk away with, is an intricate examination of ethics. Ethics in the hands of Shaw involves a lot of talk. The play runs, with intermission, about 2 3/4 hours – typical for Shaw, but a bit much for some modern theatergoers.
So, go with your thinking cap on, and the patience to hear the man out. You know he’s saying something he sees as important when one of his characters (in this case, the artist) quotes Shaw himself, by name, and when one of the silliest characters strings together random phrases from Shakespeare (the playwright Shaw saw as his chief rival). What he has to say will leave most modern folk squirming a bit, which is just what he was after.
What: “The Doctor’s Dilemma” When: in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” on selected dates through November 25, 8 p.m Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $52 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org