In Buffalo, we love our Canadian imports: Labatt Blue, Tim Hortons, the French Connection, the Tragically Hip.
To this already impressive list, we can now add another cultural commodity from the highbrow side of Canadian culture: The Shaw Festival. The esteemed repertory company based in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., made its Buffalo debut Nov. 3 in Shea's 710 Theatre with a sterling production of George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession."
Eda Holmes' smart and energetic production has arrived fully intact from its successful run in the Royal George Theatre, which ended in late October. With a few minor adjustments to fit the venue's three-quarter round stage and one cast replacement, the show retains nearly all of its original charm.
It also reactivates the Shea's 710 stage in a way that recalls the better days of Studio Arena Theatre, whose closing in 2008 thrust the space into a programmatic identity crisis that may finally be drawing to a close.
Rarely has a Shaw play felt as immediate and as accessible as this take on "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Holmes has framed it cleverly, presenting the show as she imagined its original performance was staged, in an exclusive men's club in London.
It's hard to overstate the importance of the show in shaping the tone and texture of 20th century theater.
In the late-19th century, officials banned the play in England because its characters dared to speak openly about the economic subjugation of women and the practice of prostitution.
But the very hypocrisy government censors exercised in their suppression of Shaw's work was actually his subject. In speaking about the unspeakable, Shaw broke with centuries of tradition surrounding sex work and opened the door to a more honest theater. The play also laid bare the self-reinforcing absurdities of aristocratic society and its attitude toward sex in a way few works of popular literature have done since.
Harsh honesty abounds in this production, which is fueled by the tortured relationship between Mrs. Warren (Nicole Underhay) and her daughter Vivvie (Jennifer Dzialoszynski).
The nuanced and glamorous Underhay plays Mrs. Warren, who has built a massive personal fortune as a high-class prostitute, a woman struggling to maintain her innate grace and poise against a society indifferent to her suffering. And Dzialoszynski, who reminded me of the terminally practical character Saffy on the British television comedy "Absolutely Fabulous," is a vibrating ball of exasperation and self-righteousness who is trying to deal with the same indifference from a totally different angle.
Both are doomed to failure, but that failure is rendered with such warmth and immediacy on Patrick Clark's excellent set and in his graceful costumes that you hardly notice how savage it is until the curtain call.
If there is one slight drawback to Underhay and Dzialoszynski's performances -- and this is a quibble -- it is that their more dramatic moments seem slightly histrionic in this new context.
Their central relationship and its volley of Shavian ideas and ideals is beautifully supported by the largely clueless but lovable men Shaw has invented as representatives of the patriarchy. As Frank Gardner, a raffish proto-frat boy and pretender to Vivie's affections, Wade Bogert-O'Brien is a delight. He fits Mrs. Warren's description of him as having "a healthy two inches thick of cheek" all over him.
The same goes for Gray Powell as a hopelessly romantic artist and Thom Marriott as the sleazy doofus Sir George Crofts, whom he plays with a wonderfully understated hint of menace.
The Shaw Festival and Shea's five-year relationship, which will see two productions per year, could hardly have gotten off on a better foot. Here's to the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
★★★½ (out of four)
The Shaw Festival's production of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" runs through Nov. 13 in Shea's 710 Theatre, 710 Main St. Tickets are $30 to $66.50. Call 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.