Perpetual anticipation, according to Stephen Sondheim, is “good for the soul, but it's bad for the heart.” Regardless of its impact, perpetual anticipation is always with us, unavoidably, especially as you're heading to a show. And so what you expect when attending a production by Performers Under Stress (they use the acronym PUS liberally, proudly even), in a former mini-garage on Howard Street, now called The Garage, a humble venue of 37 folding chairs – well, you'd prognosticate something less than splendid.
Oh, and what's on the playbill? PUS' first outing with G.B. Shaw, from the great playwright's Plays Unpleasant series, the impassioned and hilarious “Mrs. Warren's Profession,” a play which a century ago deeply upset the British censor, most critics, and a good segment of the public with its bold statements about morality, hypocrisy, the exploitation of women.
Here's the good news: Reminiscent of The City's historic small-theater explosion in the 1960s and '70s, Performers Under Stress is overcoming those daunting challenges, and present an inviting, involving production of professional quality.
Company manager Scott Baker directed the play with respect and imagination. Startling as it may be at first to see the commedia dell'arte setting, complete with masks,and (very) large gestures, Baker's concept actually illuminates Shaw: the masks come off when the characters speak their mind, go back on when they lie or pretend (which they do most of the time). In the entire evening, there is only one directorial misstep, ending the play suddenly, instead of playing out Shaw's detailed directions after the last line of dialog.
Regardless of the constraints of size and budget, this is a fine physical production, with clever projections of scene titles and silent-film excerpts, and Valerie Fachman's costumes.
In the title role, costume-designer Fachman gives a formidable performance as the woman who is so good at her profession – the world's oldest – that she could rise from abject poverty to great wealth.
Fachman is letter-perfect through the long, complex speeches Shaw gave to the character; she presents the wide emotional range convincingly, the actress disappearing behind the character, a performance that would be well at home in a theater a hundred times the size of a 37-seat garage.
Katherine Leilani McDowell is Vivie, Mrs. Warren's daughter, raised in luxury by an absent mother, who is busy maximizing her “ill-gotten gains,” and hiding the truth from the strong, righteous-to-a-fault daughter. The young actress is paired with a young actor in the role of Frank Gardner, Vivie's free-thinking, father-despising suitor; Brendan Scoggin does justice to the role, which represents Shaw's own straight-talking, fearless ways.
Dale Tagtmeyer is the nasty Sir George Crofts, a symbol of everything that's wrong with capitalism (and middle age); George Epsilanty is the effusive, very funny Mr. Praed; and Brandon Long is the Rev. Samuel Gardner.
IF YOU GO
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Presented by Performers Under Stress
Where: 975 Howard St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays; closes Nov. 11
Tickets $10 to $20
Contact: (415) 948-5637 or www.pustheatre.org