Finding humor, pathos among oldest pros

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Michael Toscano

It’s evening on Memorial Day 2015, gently warm at sunset on the first night of what we think of as summer. It’s been a day of ceremonies, both solemn and joyous, and families. It’s time now to settle in at home and get ready for the shortened week ahead.

But on this evening, in a multi-purpose room at Christ Lutheran Church on 16th Street in D.C., a family of another sort is at work. There are five actors, a director, and a pianist at work rehearsing a play. It is Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, which as you might well imagine, could also be described as being about a non-traditional family of unconventional women. It’s being staged by Rainbow Theatre Project at Flashpoint’s cozy black-box theatre from June 4 to 21.

The show is promoted as a “bawdy comedy with musical interludes.” But that doesn’t really capture its essence. Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of How I Learned to Drive has actually crafted a sharp look at the financial circumstances of women in a male society, circa the early 1980s.

Bawdy and brave

Focusing on a group of geriatric prostitutes, she explores the need for economic security, particularly in old age, and how sexuality has so often been the source of female power. Anxiety about death is a catalyst for action here. But, yeah, it’s bawdy, and there are songs.

Director Elizabeth Pringle isn’t worried that audiences expecting just “bawdy comedy” will be unprepared for what Vogel delivers.

“She’s so brilliant,” Pringle said of the writer. “She’s so accessible, which is what I initially loved about her. And at the same time, with so many layers of understanding and comedy throughout.”

Pringle knows Vogel somewhat, having spent time with her at a “playwriting boot-camp” at Arena Stage in the late 1990s. The playwright’s trademark is delving, clear-eyed, into uncomfortable topics (such as incest inHow I Learned to Drive or the devastation of AIDS in The Baltimore Waltz) with an unexpected combination of tenderness and verve.

Vogel’s empathy for her characters helps break down barriers between the people in the seats and the people onstage.

“I find the best comedy has a root in real depth and real human suffering or passion,” Pringle explains. “And this [play] has a real root in history, ahead of where the car went off the road economically and politically in many ways.

“And then you see, through the comedy, the strength and the redemption of the human spirit, of human relationships... hrough the eyes of these aging whores.” Pringle laughs as she says that last earthy word, perhaps amused at the way it is juxtaposed against such lofty sentiments.

Historical and real, yet magical

The play begins with the election of Ronald Reagan and charts the effect of “trickle-down economics,” as Pringle calls it, as well as a challenging social climate for five 70-ish prostitutes. They cater to an older clientele, but that’s increasingly difficult to manage with competition from younger women.

The pressures of gentrification are making it all but impossible for them to hold onto an apartment. The funny, ribald conversation about their business is also mixed with concern about faltering health. As age begins to claim them, the warm comedy takes on a surreal tone.

As each woman dies, she returns as her 20-something self, singing tunes of the 1920s and 30s. There’s a great jazz song from Bessie Smith here, one from Mae West there. What they may lack in uniform greatness, they make up for in edgy suggestiveness.  

The magical realism remains front and center as we shift back and forth in time, as the post-life setting — a bordello-style room of an earlier era — remains upstage for the rest of the play, sharing space with the living.

It requires a finely-tuned ensemble to pull this off, and Pringle believes she has just what she needs onstage — “actors who bring three-dimensional characters to life and dance and sing.”  

Estimable local actor Charlotte Akin, whose resume includes productions at Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, Keegan Theatre, Washington Shakespeare Company and a dozen others, is the most well known member of the cast. Tricia McCauley, whose work in the delightful On Approval at Washington Stage Guild was reviewed in this space last month, is there, too.

They are joined by Desiree’ Dubose, Emily Morrison and Diana Bridge. Reenie Codelka, who is both a professor and opera stage director at George Mason University and a music director and conductor at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, accompanies the women on piano.

Working with the actors

To engender a sense of comradeship among the ladies, Pringle has taken them through improvisational work, exploring the physicality of the characters and their connections to each other. They have researched and discussed what she calls “the economic overlay” to the characters and their lives. She has taken pains to see that the cast walks a fine line.

“The sexuality of [the play] is not so upfront. They are, sort of, ladies in their own way and they have a lot of self-respect, considering what they’ve done and what they’ve been through,” Pringle says.

She hopes audiences will leave the theater thinking of the way shifts in society put into play in the early 1980s reverberate today, and also how maybe it’s time to decriminalize prostitution.

Pringle is also hoping to entice Vogel to do more work with the Rainbow Theatre Project. Vogel, who is from Washington, now calls Cape Cod home. Her Twitter feed shows she has just been in Beijing for a premiere of How I Learned to Drive

Pringle is reaching out to her, hoping she might be interested in seeing a new production of a play she wrote over three decades ago.

Would that put unbearable pressure on Pringle, herself a playwright, director, actor and teacher? “Oh, no, no, no!” Pringle insists. Vogel is “so generous and gracious and an amazing woman,” she exclaims. “And that’s why we go to the theater, to have a human experience.”

Rainbow Theatre Project presents The Oldest Profession June 4 to 21 at Flashpoint, 916 G St., NW in Washington, D.C.

Showtimes: Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 8 p.m., except Sunday, June 21, when the performance is at 2 p.m. Ticket price is $35. Tickets may be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/873479.

For more information, visit www.rainbowtheatreproject.com or write info@rainbowtheatreproject.org. For information about Flashpoint, visit www.culturaldc.org/ ?ref=flashpoint or call (202) 315-1305.