By hooker by crook in The Oldest Profession

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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.

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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.


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

IPH… a picture paints a thousand words

C. Kelly Wright (left) is Klytaimnestra, Traci Tolmaire is Iphigenia and L. Peter Callender is Agamemnon in IPH…, a collaboration of Brava Theater and African-American Shakespeare Company. Photos by Charlie Villyard

One general problem I have with Greek tragedy is that I’m not Greek and, most days, not terribly tragic. I’ve experienced, a time or two, the feeling of catharsis that can come from being immersed in godly and ungodly troubles. Fiona Shaw as Medea comes to mind, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Oresteia had its acutely emotional moments.

But my favorite Greek tragedy wasn’t tragic at all. John Fisher’s Medea: the Musical, which upended all that stuffed-toga stuff and had a ball at the expense of people taking themselves (and life) too seriously. That was 16 years ago, and I still use it as my barometer for making sense of everything that’s Greek to me.

I was secretly hoping that IPH… the new translation/adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis by Irish writer Colin Teevan would be more giddy than grotesque. Sure, the story of a father forced by the gods to sacrifice his own daughter for the good of his country and its war against Troy is rough stuff. But John Fisher found a way to have fun and be serious.

The U.S. premiere of Teevan’s script marks a first-time collaboration between Brava Theater and the African-American Shakespeare Company – two companies that seem to work well with and benefit from one another.

I try not to pay too much attention to pre-show buzz, but I had heard something about the show being part rock concert (in fact, I read it in the program note from director Dylan Russell), and that made me think this could be a not-your-average-Greek experience.

And to some degree, IPH… is an attempt to make the ancient contemporary. There are some amusing and intriguing video projections (by Wesley Cabral) mixed in with live video of the actors on stage, and there is music, courtesy of a lively chorus (Lisa Lacy, Marilet Martinez, Sarita Ocon and Natalia Duong). Music Director Uma Errickson had fun with the songs harmonies, especially the number singing the praises of superstar Achilles (Luke Taylor).

But when it comes right down to it, this is a thick slice of Greek tragedy whose 90 minutes feel a lot longer.


The first 30 minutes of the play is dominated by monologues – first from Agamemnon’s servant (Peter Kybart), then from Agamemnon himself (L. Peter Callender, the new artistic director of African-American Shakes), then from his brother, Menelaus (Dorian “Jim” Lockett). The men in the play tend to orate, while the women actually seem to converse.

At about the half-hour mark, we finally get a glimpse of Klytaimnestra (C. Kelly Wright) and Iphigenia (Traci Tolmaire). They’re singing beautifully to one another at the back of the Brava Theater, and it’s a huge relief when they arrive. The pontificating and sermonizing scales down, and the drama kicks into gear.

Callender’s intensity knows no bounds. Every labored breath is fraught with emotion as Agamemnon weighs the life of his beloved daughter against the well-being of his country and its army.

And Wright is one of those actors you go out of your way to see because she’s so grounded, so real and so very grand. She’s larger than life but constantly reflects real life through genuine emotion. Her motherly connection with Tolmaire is deeply felt and brings us most fervently into the play’s tragic heart.

Director Russell’s supporting cast doesn’t have the firepower of Callender and Wright, which tends to diffuse their power.

Stylistically, the modern touches and the music don’t always work. The video can steal too much focus from the actors, although the sheer size of set designer Matt McAdon’s multi-level, gracefully ramped stage calls out for ways to bring us closer and deeper into the emotion.

The music doesn’t always work, either, as we find when Menelaus does sort of a beat-box rap whose lyrics are mostly unintelligible (although the chorus’ back-up “be doo ba doo’s” are lovely).

I kept wanting IPH… to break its Greek bonds and just be real for a minute. Callender and Wright come closest to making those moments happen, but the tragedy here remains more of an idea rather than an emotional state.


Brava Theater and African-American Shakespeare Company’s IPH… continues through Oct. 16 at the Brava Theater, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415 647-2822 or visit or for information.