Melissa Oei as Vivie Warren and Linda Quibell as Mrs. 'Kitty' Warren in the Alley Theatre production of Mrs. Warren's Profession on stage at the Rickshaw Theatre through April 27. Photo by Kaarina Lenalainen.
Melissa Oei as Vivie Warren and Linda Quibell as Mrs. 'Kitty' Warren in the Alley Theatre production of Mrs. Warren's Profession on stage at the Rickshaw Theatre through April 27. Photo by Kaarina Lenalainen.

The Alley Theatre production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession is teeming with talent, but misses an opportunity by not using its unique locale to full advantage.

In this co-production with Neworld Theatre, George Bernard Shaw’s provocative 19th century battle between mother and daughter is taken outside a traditional theatrical setting and dropped at the epicenter of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).  Primarily a music venue, the Rickshaw Theatre at Main and Hastings becomes the playground for this ambitious production.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession tells the story of Mrs. “Kitty” Warren who rejects a life in the factories, deciding instead to turn to prostitution and ultimately operating a chain of European brothels.  Having hidden this from her daughter for many years, we arrive on the day where the secrets to Vivie’s comfortable life begin to be revealed.

Tackling head-on the still unfortunately relevant questions that Shaw first wrote about over a hundred years ago, the production edges to a more contemporary convergence by placing it inside the DTES and adding modern elements of dress, live music, projections and even live text messages answering some of the Shaw’s provocative questions during intermission.  But what could have been its biggest strength, the Rickshaw Theatre itself, becomes a hodgepodge of site-specific theatre that never quite gets site-specific enough.

In previews, Alley Theatre Artistic Director Marissa Smith and co-producer Daniel Arnold stated that by placing the show into the Rickshaw it would become a stark reminder to audiences as they leave that much of what Shaw wrote about over a century ago, still remains true in one of the poorest parts of our country. Problem is, while it might esoterically or subconsciously trigger such thoughts, it could have just as easily have been accomplished with a straight-forward presentation in the same venue.

Instead, Smith moves her audience several times on the main floor before moving to the balcony for the final act.  But none of this appears to be in service of the story itself, but rather a simple desire to utilize as much of the Rickshaw as possible.  Given the site-specific work that Alley Theatre has done in the past, it felt like an opportunity lost.

Despite staging that was as at times as disruptive as it was disconnected from its story, there are some truly remarkable performances going on in this production.

Leading the way is the dynamic mother-daughter relationship that is brought to life with skill from Linda Quibell and Melissa Oei.  Quibell is particularly mesmerizing as she walks Shaw’s delicate balance with her love for a daughter and in making no apologies for her chosen profession.  Oei matches Quibell’s iron will and is ultimately believable as she moves from initial acceptance to her surprising final decision.

The remainder of this talented cast are as equally strong, bringing a diversity to Shaw’s characters that is so rarely seen in such a diverse city as ours.  Daniel Arnold as the irrepressible and irresponsible young suitor Frank Gardiner is particularly droll and Rick Tae brings a suitable stately demeanour to Mr Praed.  Tom Pickett brings a welcome comedic touch to the role of the pastor Gardiner and Eric Keenleyside is deliciously pompous and rotundly off-putting as Sir George Crofts.

There is little argument that many of the questions Shaw raises in Mrs. Warren’s Profession are still relevant today, giving it a surprisingly contemporary feel that is matched by some of the design decisions in this production.  And while the stars of this production ultimately make for a compelling and worthwhile evening of theatre, as I walked onto the streets at Main and Hastings at the end of the night I wished the Rickshaw had been just as big of a star.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession.  By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Marisa Smith. An Alley Theatre production in association with Newworld Theatre and Renegade Arts Company.  In partnership with WISH Drop-in Center and PACE Society.  On stage at the Rickshaw Theatre (254 East Hastings St) through April 27, 2014.  Visit http://www.mrswarrens.ca for tickets and more information.