A Playful ‘Pygmalion’ from Bedlam? Bloody Likely.
Posted March 27, 2018 11:43 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Here’s the ancient Pygmalion myth: Boy meets rock. Boy carves rock into a girl. Boy pervs on girl. Boy gets girl. And here’s George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”: Phonetician meets flower seller. Phonetician shapes flower seller into a lady. No one pervs on anyone. The myth is a grotesque comedy, the play a much more sparkling one. Maybe it’s also a wistful kind of tragedy about what can’t be chiseled or changed.
You can see these shadings in Bedlam’s fleet, appealing, overstretched revival. In the Sheen Center’s black box theater, the company, known for its forceful and efficient approach to classics, has stripped Shaw’s 1913 drama of anything fusty, bringing the small audience face-to-face and sometimes leg-to-leg with its clever, vexing characters.
The first scene plunges us straight into the dirt and bustle of the Tottenham Court Road flower market. Eliza Doolittle (Vaishnavi Sharma), a ragamuffin with an angel face and an alley-cat yowl, meets Henry Higgins (Eric Tucker, who also directs), an eccentric phonetician, and his colleague Colonel Pickering (Nigel Gore). Overhearing Higgins’ boast that in “three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party,” she later arrives at his home and demands that Higgins teach her proper English. Higgins bets he can, the colonel bets he can’t and the elocutionary game is afoot.
There’s lots of Bedlamite fun throughout. John McDermott’s set couldn’t be simpler — a table, a few chairs, a curtain, some carpets — and the audience is on three sides, smack in the middle of the action. As a director, Tucker is at his best and most comfortable in a middle scene, a genteel reception at which Eliza accidentally outs herself with pleasant conversation like “Not bloody likely.” In typical Bedlam fashion there are more characters at this party than there are actors so the scene is accomplished with lightning-strike changes of hats and accents and it’s a rare treat.
If you know “My Fair Lady” then there are parts you will miss, like the scenes of instruction and Eliza’s success at the ball. When Eliza says she can do without Higgins or Higgins admits having grown accustomed to her face, you can’t help pricking your ears for the orchestra. But this is a testament to the charm of Lerner and Loewe, not a broadside against Shaw. This “Pygmalion” can do without music. When it slices to the core of a classic text with wit and verve and a show-off’s delight, it’s doing what the company does best.
Still, Bedlam is doing other things, too, and they aren’t as successful. There’s nothing here as discouraging as its recent high-concept, low-joy “Peter Pan,” but some ideas don’t fly. I don’t question the decision to cast Sharma. She’s a cracking Eliza, fierce and impish and moving. But Tucker has encouraged an Anglo-Indian accent, translated her first lines into Hindi and altered a bit of dialogue: “Lisson Grove prudery” becomes “Indian prudery,” and there’s a mention of Delhi. Eliza’s ballgown, designed by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, borrows from a sari.
“Pygmalion” is a comedy about a woman who becomes declassed. These changes shift the play toward themes of colonialism and deracination instead. That’s a play I’d like to see, but it’s not “Pygmalion,” or at least it’s not “Pygmalion” with only a line or two improved. Here it’s just a tease and as Higgins ought to know and doesn’t, teasing isn’t nice.
There’s more teasing involved in having Tucker play Higgins. Because what is Higgins if not a kind of tyrannical director, rehearsing Eliza in her role until she walks and talks and smiles and laughs just the way he wants. (Let’s hope Tucker is a little less domineering offstage.) When Eliza rebels, it’s because they can’t agree on her interpretation of the role. She thinks that a life including love and sex and the occasional kindness would be a richer one. He thinks that it would be a fatal compromise, a sacrifice of her strength and independence.
This is the tragic part, that the boy and the girl he’s created, or the girl who has been allowed to create herself, can’t mold themselves into some new shape that would surprise them both. I’m a Henry and Eliza shipper and I have plenty of company. Audiences, actors, directors, everyone pressed Shaw to give the play a happy ending — the actress he had written Eliza for rebelled and wrote her own cutesy curtain line — but Shaw wouldn’t budge. For him, an unromantic friendship was a happy ending. Maybe that’s his tragedy. Maybe that’s ours.
— Production Notes:
Credits: By George Bernard Shaw; directed by Eric Tucker; sets by John McDermott; lighting by Les Dickert; costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane; sound by Tucker; production managers, Jared Wolf and Sarah Ford; production stage manager, Diane Healy; general manager, Kimberly Pau Boston. Presented by Bedlam.
Cast: Rajesh Bose (Alfred Doolittle), Annabel Capper (Mrs. Pearce/Clara Eynsford-Hill/Parlour Maid), Nigel Gore (Colonel Pickering/Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Edmund Lewis (Mrs. Higgins/Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Vaishnavi Sharma (Eliza) and Eric Tucker (Henry Higgins).
Tickets: Through April 22 at the Sheen Center; 866-811-4111, sheencenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.