The cast of Brava Theater’s The Oldest Profession includes (from left) Patricia Silver, Linda Ayres-Frederick, Lee Brady, Tamar Cohen and Cecele Levinson. Below: Silver as Ursula belts a number (with Angela Dwyer on the piano behind her). Photos by Eric Harvieux
By focusing in on some of the oldest practitioners of the world’s oldest profession, playwright Paula Vogel finds a lot to say about the way the world views senior citizens. Even more than sexuality, Vogel’s charming and sad The Oldest Profession takes an insightful look into the power of bonding – especially among women.
Staged upstairs in Brava Theater’s cozy Studio Theater, Oldest Profession is an immensely enjoyable, if somewhat heartbreaking experience. Director Evren Odcikin calibrates the evening just about perfectly, guiding his quartet of actors plus one rollicking good piano player through Vogel’s poignant, but laugh-filled landscape.
With the feel of a plush bawdy house parlor, the Studio Theater creates an enticing environment for the play. Music director/pianist Angela Dwyer is at the upright next to a velvet couch – she’s mere steps away from the small stage, which set designer Jacqui Martinez has tricked out to give us hints of New York’s Upper West Side (please not the 72nd Street Subway stop). Lighting designer Allison Bell has shaded lamps scattered around the theater and even hangs a few from the ceiling for optimal coziness.
The most functional part of the set is a park bench. That’s the congregating spot for five working ladies who have been in “the business” for decades – ever since they worked out of a house in New Orleans. Their ages aren’t really specified, but they’re in their 60s and maybe 70s.
They look out for each other, both as friend and as business associates. Fireplug Mae (Cecele Levinson) is the boss. She’s got a knife in her purse and isn’t afraid to pull it to make a point.
Patricia Silver is Ursula, the second in command. She’s got some tough business-minded thoughts about increasing profits, and lollygagging on a park bench isn’t one of them. Tamar Cohen is Lillian, the free spirit of the bunch. A patron of the arts, she exchanges services with theater folk so she can feel a part of the community.
And then there’s Edna (Linda Ayers-Frederick), freshly sprung from jail after a jealous wife unleashed the police to exact revenge on her philandering husband. Even after a rough night in the pokey, Edna’s spirits cannot be dimmed.
The childlike Vera (Lee Brady) is the heart of the group. She’s practical and streetwise, as a prostitute of her advanced years and experience would be, but she hasn’t lost her delight in the world. She also has one of the funniest lines in the play (and helps set the late ‘70s mood): “Ursula, you just used Jimmy Carter and poontang in the same sentence!”
These five women (and pianist Dwyer) make a formidable group. They are absolutely captivating and bring a powerful life force to the stage. You feel them working as a group and making the most of Vogel’s poignant drama.
They also get to sing some great old songs – “I’m No Angel” and “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sittin’ on It” among them – and do some serious shimmying. But again, Vogel’s take on all this is never far away from the sadness of death and loneliness.
The Oldest Profession, it turns out, really is about the oldest story in the book. Under the laughs and behind the music is a powerful story about history and hard work, defiance and despair and the power of women.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession continues through April 9 at Brava Studio Theater, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 415-647-2822 or visit www.brava.org.