For female actors over 40, a familiar and monotonous list of character types dominates the theatre: mother, grandmother, beloved domestic worker. That’s why it is so satisfying to watch the five characters in Rainbow Theatre Project’s new production of The Oldest Profession, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paula Vogel. They happen to be prostitutes, well into their sixties now, but with every bit of ambition and edge that they had when they were sixteen and recently initiated into “The Life.” Although Vogel’s script is problematic at points in its basically unrealistic and glamorizing depiction of sex work, there is no doubt a great entertainment value in watching these five fabulous actors having the time of their life as they breathe life into vibrant and unusual characters.
Director Elizabeth Pringle divides her tiny Flashpoint space into two halves, one upstage and one downstage. Set Designer Greg Stevens decorates the downstage with nothing more than a park bench, upon which the entire two hours traffic takes place. The upstage half is a much more luscious harem-style quarter that can only be described as “Whore Heaven”, whose meaning becomes apparent over the course of the show. The unusual bisection of the space results in the speaking actors getting upstaged quite a bit, but it also provides some useful visual stimulation in a production that takes place in a single setting.
The lighting, by Angelo Merenda, is also minimal, but comes alive during five distinct moments when the individual characters have a chance to sing their swan song – a literal burlesque-style song, by the way, complete with choreography by Alison Waldman. It is the costume design that really pops in this visually bare production. Designer Greg Stevens clearly took great care in designing costumes for each of the five characters that reflects their personalities and takes on a life of its own in an otherwise hungry visual space.
The Oldest Profession is a quirky and funny play that contains some not-so-subtle digs at the decline of the American middle class at the dawning of Reagan’s America. The five women are a band of happy whores who have been together fifty years. Their Madam is Mae (Emily Morrison), who could be your kindly great aunt except for her skill with a blade and her fierce determination to protect her girls. Mae’s brood consists of Lillian (Diana Haberstick), an old fashioned Southern belle, Ursula (Tricia McCauley) a fiercely capitalist provocateur, Edna (Desiré DuBose), a joyous African American courtesan, and Vera (Charlotte Akin), the kindest and gentlest of the bunch whose story ends in ruin.
All five actors do a bang up job at making their banging job look, well, normal. Their biggest problem is which funds to invest in and whether their clients, geriatric gentleman looking for a shoulder to cry on as much as bedroom companionship, can still get it up in this pre-Viagra epoch. All of this is pure fantasy, of course. The lives of sex workers, almost without exception, are tales of misery peppered with violence, sexual assault, addiction and poverty. The notion of a prostitute even living to reach Social Security age is borderline dangerous because it masks a serious social ill. To be certain, all theatre is fantasy to an extent, and there is a joy in watching the scenario of the Golden Working Girls and smilingly asking, “what if?” But no one should be fooled into thinking this is anything like what the sex trade was ever like, in 1980 or otherwise.
Aside from the problematic social mores of the play, a larger question I asked myself throughout was what, exactly, made The Oldest Profession a Rainbow show? The company’s stated mission is “being the premier theatre for the [LGBTQ] community in the Nation’s Capital by presenting plays and musicals that reflect the unique experiences, interests and history of the LGBTQ community”. However, there are no LGBTQ characters and no mention of sex industry-related LGBT issues like AIDS or trans sex workers. Paula Vogel is indeed a lesbian, but the play doesn’t present any obvious “lesbian” point of view. Given the wealth of plays and musicals that detail explicitly with gay characters or issues, it is curious, at least, that Rainbow should choose such a straight play.
Questions of social probity and mission creep aside, there are two great things that stand out about The Oldest Profession. The first is that it is warm and funny, and the cabaret-style musical numbers are a blast. The second is that just like Taffety Punk’s Riot Grrrls Series gives female actors the chance to play male Shakespearean power roles, so does The Oldest Profession allow female actors over 40 the chance to strut their stuff and embody a truly unique character – one that may not exist in reality, but which is sure fun to dream about on stage.