Working Stiffs

Who has it easier--prostitutes or Suburban Theater instructors? George Bernard Shaw and David Mann discuss.

There are two key mother-and-daughter scenes in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, and in director Lisa Peterson's Guthrie production, the first becomes greater after you've seen the second. In act one, Kitty Warren (Caitlin O'Connell), an ex-prostitute who has gotten rich managing a string of Continental brothels, finally reveals to her daughter Vivie (Vivienne Benesch) how the family's wealth was won. Kitty is an unconventional and, you know, saucy woman, but nonetheless dignified and at ease in high society. But when her daughter greets her revelation with shocked disfavor, Shaw has Kitty lapse into a long-repressed cockney accent--slurring and spitting out an impassioned monologue that chastises both Vivie and societal hypocrisy and injustice.

When Kitty reprises the accent slip in a later confrontation, what had earlier seemed like a somewhat forced transformation becomes multivalent. Is the lapse an instinctive, passionate shedding of artifice, or a calculated ploy to make Vivie see her mother as the eternal victim? If you have the idea that Shaw's didactic agendum precludes nuance, this production offers a counter-argument. Heroes and villains are not clearly delineated: Shaw's sympathies are distributed throughout two-thirds of the dramatis personae (only Richard Ooms's clownish Reverend Gardner and Paul O'Brien's slimy George Crofts receive his disapproval). Most important, all the ideology is dressed in very funny petticoats--especially when Vivie's incorrigible suitor, and the play's most unabashed strumpet, Frank (Leo Kittay in a masterfully comic turn) is onstage.

Taking it lying down: Vivie (Vivienne Benesch) learns that she is the daughter of a prostitute in 'Mrs. Warren's Profession'
T. Charles Erickson
Taking it lying down: Vivie (Vivienne Benesch) learns that she is the daughter of a prostitute in 'Mrs. Warren's Profession'

Though written in 1893, Mrs. Warren didn't get a proper public performance until 1925, having been banned by the Lord Chamberlain and shunned by American producers. The censorship didn't stem so much from the play's theme--prostitution wasn't such a taboo dramatic subject--but from Shaw's treatment of it. Exchanging sex for money, the socialist playwright has his characters contend, is a safer, less taxing, and more lucrative racket than factory work--it's also one of the few means for women to become independent in a society that stanches their occupational opportunities.

Mrs. Warren is partly a product of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Vivie--an assured, ambitious, and keenly self-aware mathematician--is perhaps something like what Ibsen's Nora Helmer might have become after she slammed the door on her constricting domestic life. Mrs. Warren's feminism is both advanced and unmistakably man-made. Embedded in Shaw's critique of gender strictures is vitriol directed at the Victorian woman herself. Shaw's ideal New Woman seems awfully close to an Old Man. It's a relief, then, that the old man is so complex and so funny.

 

The most remarkable thing about David Mann's latest and most ambitious one-man show is that it's remotely interesting, much less highly engaging. Here's a guy talking for two hours about his first adult job. Not a job in, say, espionage or porn, but a humble gig teaching theater at a Catholic school. I'm almost certain that Emily Post discouraged this sort of thing. But as Revelations of Mann reveals, Mann is the kind of dinner guest Post would have coveted: the animated raconteur, the charming wit, the master of belch suppression.

In this self-penned memoir, Mann recounts his four-year stint as a theater instructor at a suburban Catholic high school. A budding artiste who has just sprung from Northwestern when he takes the job, Mann is chagrined to learn that he'll be doing less teaching than set-building. (He soothes his ego by remembering that Jesus was a carpenter "before he got famous.") He eventually manages to get artsy in the position, boldly bringing an Ionesco one-act to a state competition. What seems destined to be a fittingly absurd disaster becomes a near triumph. As throughout the play, Mann lends tension to the simple story, and finds a friendly mean between parody and tribute.

Mann is a veteran of one-man shows, and through director Sarah Gioia's guidance he has expanded his command of the form. As with Nathan Keepers's recent Jungle hit Fully Committed, Mann's effortless stage dialogues with himself are exhilarating: In one instance, he depicts a panel interview, shifting his voice and carriage to the demands of a half-dozen characters while maintaining a believable rhythm. To pull this trick off, the actor must create somewhat exaggerated portrayals to keep the characters distinguishable. Mann has managed to amplify the quirks of his characters without sacrificing subtlety, but some don't transcend caricature. One student is given a reading so indebted to Bill and Ted-era Keanu Reeves that it's impossible to see him as anything more than an impression.

Though consistently enjoyable, the two-hour Revelations of Mann could be stronger if given a judicious edit. Besides treating Mann's on-the-job coming-of-age, the show offers several secondary plots and themes, such as Mann's relationship with his father, his conflicts with the crotchety theater-department head and closeted principal, even Catholicism and faith as a whole. These elements aren't fully developed or treated with enough depth, and their combined presence gives the second act a slightly scattered feel.

Mann tells his story amid partially constructed sets and strewn-about tech junk. In one of the play's few off-campus scenes, Mann visits the cathedral of St. Paul, which Gioia and lighting designer Pamela Kildahl artfully represent as a shadowgraph. Typical of the show's lot-from-a-little charm, the shadow is created by stuff Mann had casually positioned during a monologue: a pop can, an upturned lighting fixture, and a plastic supply tub. You can squeeze a lot from the mundane: To rob William Carlos Williams, so much depends upon a green soda can, glazed with Mountain Dew.

 
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