The Professional

Kevin Berne/Courtesy

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In the world of George Bernard Shaw, there are prostitutes and there are whores; one is a matter of profession, the other of character. His provocative play "Mrs. Warren's Profession," now playing at the California Shakespeare Theatre, is full of whores though it features only one prostitute.

20-something-year-old Vivie Warren (Anna Bullard) has grown up scarcely knowing her mother or what she does for a living. She has nice clothes and an expensive Cambridge education, but no idea where her money comes from. When the mysterious Mrs. Warren (Stacy Ross) comes for a visit, bringing a few friends from her cosmopolitan circle, Vivie becomes suspicious about her mother's life.

In Shaw's 1890's London, prostitution was not illegal; it was simply vilified by society. It was generally considered the high-water mark of moral depravity, yet Shaw frames the topic very differently. The questionable way in which Mrs. Warren makes her living pales in comparison to the depravity of the men who have made it necessary for her to live this way. Compared with the charming young Frank Gardner (Richard Thieriot) determined to marry for money, or her cynical business partner (Andy Murray), eager to buy himself a wife, Mrs. Warren is certainly not the biggest whore.

As the title character, Ross gives a wonderfully powerful and nuanced performance. Her posh London accent is occasionally penetrated by telling working class idioms, and then artfully falls away to reveal the cockney dialect of her humble beginnings. When she finally reveals her true profession to her idealistic daughter, she speaks compellingly of how prostitution allowed her to take control of her own destiny, and leave behind the poverty and humiliation of low-class drudgery.

Bullard's Vivie is certainly a force to be reckoned with. The puritanical daughter represents an altogether different kind of independent woman, one who lives by her brains rather than her loins. This coldly ethical and logical young woman goes through life brandishing a sharp and unwavering set of ideals that she refuses to compromise even for her mother. Bullard's performance, while strong, has a tendency to become rather strident and eventually devolves into a great deal of yelling, mostly in one key.

Director Timothy Near cleverly invites the audience into the innermost workings of the play through the pervasive motif of stripping things down and building them back up. The female characters change costumes onstage, stripping down to their most basic selves and then reconstructing their social facades before our eyes. This artistic choice creatively underscores the theme of female objectification under the gaze of a patriarchal society.

We've all seen "Pretty Woman" and know the story of the young prostitute's ascendance into respectable society. But fascinatingly, Mrs. Warren is really completely unashamed of her profession; in fact she refuses to give it up, even to please her daughter. This is her business of choice.

In today's America, in which only one of 50 states has decriminalized prostitution, this production of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" raises an interesting and thoroughly relevant discussion. In this play, the practice of prostitution hovers in a gray area between women's oppression and women's liberation. It calls out the hypocrisy of a society in which sex for money is condemned while marrying for money is lauded. Shaw points out that there are many ways to be a whore, and that prostitution is not necessarily one of them.

Send Gwen your best cover of 'I Am Woman' at [email protected]

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