I don’t think I have been so torn about a production in my limited time as a critic. “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” at Promethean Theatre Ensemble, brings to life the ever-relevant work of George Bernard Shaw, a playwright who can hold up a mirror to today’s blemishes despite having been dead for more than seventy years. A brilliant revival choice that could’ve been an invigorating think piece, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” doesn’t reach its potential because of an ironic lack of professionalism.
For a play that premiered the same year that Marie Curie isolated radium, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” touches on contemporary issues of privilege, gender equality and the ever-prevalent stigma surrounding sex work. As it was in Shaw’s time, these characters ask the audience to check their privilege because our subjective experience doesn’t apply to everyone. Mrs. Warren and her daughter, Vivie, represent perceived dichotomies for women: the Madonna and the whore, the romantic and the realist, the conservative and the progressive. The scenes between these two characters critique the strict categorization of women while simultaneously passing the Bechdel test.
The only flaw I find in Shaw’s piece is that it forces its female characters to fully accept the roles society gives them without leaving any room for the more realistic concepts of moral gray areas and compromise. As for the flaws in Promethean’s production, I found a few more. The acting is amateurish up until the first-act climax, which finally pulled me into Mrs. Warren’s reality after an hour of confounding acting choices and wearisome rhetoric. The ensemble acts hard and pushes the banter, which keeps the audience from becoming fully invested in the story. A show set in turn-of-the-century England should serve as a primer in restraint and emotional repression but instead everything here is exaggerated and overly dramatic.
The costuming and sound choices reinforce the themes of inexperience and overstatement. A character that is supposed to be a symbol of practicality is initially adorned with a necklace, bow and brooch. The inconsistencies and dilettantish construction improve in the second act with more varied silhouettes and bolder choices. The sound did not. It’s as if someone Googled “early 1900s music” and just picked the first songs they found. The choices were contrived and didn’t fit with what was happening in the scenes. The sound effects were equally confusing, with the sound of a door slamming every time someone entered or exited the room. Though, to be fair, I too slam the door whenever I enter a room so everyone present is made aware of my arrival.
Saving graces can also be found throughout the production. Jared Dennis is mindful and brings subtle mannerisms to the scoundrel Sir George Crofts. His sincerity and seriousness bring the wit out of the dialogue and the laughs out of the audience. My only alteration would be to make Sir George more deplorable as Dennis draws such empathy that I found myself actively engaging with Mr. White Male Privilege. This character-based insight extends to the mother-daughter development right before intermission when Mrs. Warren literally and metaphorically uncloaks herself before her daughter, risking rejection and repulsion. Ultimately, these displays of humanity and unaffected unpleasantness make the show worth seeing.
What conclusively tilted my review away from recommendation was not the performance but the venue. I admire Otherworld Theatre’s steadfastness in theme and DIY aesthetic but, similar to Promethean’s show, some endeavors require further professionalism in order to succeed. The inefficient watering hole was out of an episode of “Bar Rescue,” the bathroom’s soap was mostly water and, following the interval, the entire site smelled faintly of excrement. I feel disillusioned by both Promethean and Otherworld because, despite my love of George Bernard Shaw and storefront theater, both failed to supply the professionalism that I’ve come to expect. (Hayley Osborn)
Promethean Theatre Ensemble at Otherworld Theatre, 3914 North Clark, prometheantheatre.org, $15-$30. Through March 29.