When George Bernard Shaw's play "Mrs. Warren's Profession" opened in the Garrick Theatre in New York City on Oct. 30, 1905, it nearly caused a riot.
Like his colleagues in England, where the play had been banned since its publication in 1894, McAdoo took issue with the Shaw's sympathetic portrayal of prostitution and judged the play "revolting, indecent and nauseating where it was not boring."
You can't buy that kind of publicity -- imagine Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda arresting the entire cast of "Avenue Q." So it was hardly surprising that "Mrs. Warren's Profession" almost instantly became one of the most popular and sought-after plays of the early 20th century.
When the Shaw Festival's production of that infamous play opens Nov. 3 in Shea's 710 Theatre as the first in a five-year series of Shaw plays traveling to Buffalo, a riot is unlikely.
But audiences will get a clear sense of what all the hubbub was about, thanks to a spirited approach devised by director Eda Holmes that sets out to make Shaw's commentary on the world's oldest profession seem as fresh as an episode of "Girls."
Holmes inserted a new preface into the play, setting it in the private British men's club where the play had its first production. In a graceful way, this choice emphasizes the atmosphere of male privilege in which the piece debuted and reduces the distance between today's theatergoers and the play's turn-of-the-century subject matter.
"Private clubs at that time were bastions of male privilege. I was looking into clubs in London and I discovered that they’re still bastions of male privilege," Holmes said by phone last week. "What I hope it does is it actually removes any layers of distancing and brings you closer to the argument that Shaw has set out. And my experience with the audience at the Shaw has been exactly that."
Holmes' production, which stars Shaw Festival veteran Nicole Underhay as the title character and Jennifer Dzialoszynski as her daughter, Vivie, is notable for eschewing the grandiosity and period trappings that have sometimes obscured the message of this great Shaw play.
"Many people have come up and said they had never heard the play as clearly before. Because when you sort of trap it in amber of the Victorian era, sometimes we get swept away by fun costumes and strange behavior and we don’t really look," she said. "Very little has changed in this particular conversation. So that was my goal: to give the audience access to it as an ongoing argument that we’re still engaged in in society."
It's become a wearying observation that Shaw's plays often have a searing modern relevance -- if they didn't, there would be no point in producing them -- but few ring as true to contemporary audiences as "Mrs. Warren's Profession." This owes as much to the power and compassion of Shaw's words as to the stubborn inequality between men and women and the ongoing debate over sex work in America and around the world.
Many of Shaw's characters -- the wise Mrs. Warren, the defiant Vivie, the bro-ish Frank Gardner (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) -- seem like prototypes for familiar modern characters like Patsy and Edina on "Absolutely Fabulous" or Lenah Dunham's character on the HBO series "Girls."
In fact, Holmes said, Dunham was a template for the Vivie, the classic Shavian proto-feminist.
"We did think of her quite a bit, as the sort of voice of the new woman," she said.
As for the play's trip to Buffalo, Holmes said she and the cast are relishing the opportunity to take a fresh look at the play and incorporate some of the audience feedback from its original run in the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. That production closed on Oct. 23.
The cast for the Buffalo production remains the same, with the exception of Shawn Wright, who will be replaced by Jeff Meadows in the role of Reverend Samuel Gardner.
The cast will arrive in Buffalo on Nov. 1, rehearse on Nov. 2 and open the following night. Holmes, the company and its American and Canadian producers expect the transfer to be smooth.
"It’s always a great opportunity to have a play have a second life, because for all of us it gives us another chance to go back to the studio and look at it again," Holmes said. "It gives us a chance to go back into the [rehearsal] room, which is a great opportunity. You learn so much from the audience when you do a play."
The Shaw Festival's production of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" opens Nov. 3 in Shea's 710 Theatre and runs through Nov. 13. Tickets are $30 to $66.50, with more information at 829-1153 or sheas.org.