A fresh look at some familiar characters
|Stage Left Theatre and Boho Theatre presents|
Review by John Olson
Most of us know this story from its musical comedy version My Fair Lady – one of the few instances in which a well-regarded play was made even more popular through its adaptation. So the question might be why do this play at all – why not just do My Fair Lady – which, after all is quite faithful to Shaw’s play (and to his screenplay for the 1938 film version of Pygmalion? Indeed, in 2002, Chicago director Gary Griffin had a lot of luck doing a downsized version of My Fair Lady with no chorus.) One reason to revisit Pygmalion is that many of the songs in My Fair Lady lock the piece into a fairly narrow range of interpretations. Eliza has to be played fairly gently to sing songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” or “I Could Have Danced All Night.” And could a baritone that does justice to “On the Street Where You Live” not be at least half-dashing as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, rather than the awkward young man of the old Pygmalion film? The songs dictate character, to a large degree. But there are other perspectives that can be taken when the Lerner and Loewe songs from My Fair Lady are not an element of the piece. Director Vance Smith has taken advantage of that flexibility to give his own spin on the play.
This is not to say this joint production is revisionist – to the contrary, it seems a respectful revival of this now 100-year-old classic. Steve O’Connell’s Henry Higgins is not so far removed from that of My Fair Lady’s Rex Harrison and even closer to the portrayal of Higgins by Leslie Howard in the 1938 Pygmalion film. Kudos to O’Connell for taking on the dubious task of playing a role so well known for Harrison’s iconic performance on stage and in the 1964 film, and for comparing favorably at that. More significant, though, is this production’s take on Eliza as a rather tough and spunky street urchin. Here we believe she would consent to give herself over to phonetics professor Higgins for a complete makeover out of a survival impulse, rather than a simple desire for a more pleasant and comfortable life. As played by Mouzam Makkar, this Eliza is as rough as she’d have to be to survive by selling flowers for pennies apiece without support from her irresponsible father or much of a social welfare system. She’s not a girl who would sing “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Even as she improves her diction, and later her understanding of the etiquette of the time, she’s the same person in many ways. Ms. Makkar not only nails the challenge of creating a single character even as Eliza undergoes such dramatic changes, but her interpretation of Eliza of a rugged girl of the streets is both more credible and more useful in illustrating the points Shaw was making about England’s class system in the early 20th Century. It’s a refreshing and enlightening take on the character that is miles away from the softer, more romantic Eliza of My Fair Lady or even Wendy Hiller’s Eliza in the Pygmalion film. Shaw’s observations about class systems are also helped by this production’s Freddie. Freddie’s family, the Eynsford-Hills, has lost much of their former wealth and is seeking to regain their former status in society through association with Mrs. Higgins. Freddie, as played here by Charles Riffenburg, is a gawky, awkward and socially inept man – by any standard an unacceptable match for the formidable Eliza. Eliza’s suggestion that she might marry him in order to leave her residency with the insensitive Higgins, shows just how limited the prospects were for a young single of a lower station.
Pygmalion on stage, compared with either My Fair Lady or Pygmalion’s film version, spends more time on social comment and that’s another reason for seeing Shaw’s original text performed. Smith has made it all just a bit harder-edged than the musical adaption. Colonel Pickering (Sandy Elias) is not much more sensitive than Higgins and housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Stephanie Sullivan) behaves annoyingly as superior to Eliza. Pygmalion also gives more stage time to Mrs. Higgins – who is delightfully acerbic, and Lisa Herceg has lots of fun with the character. Mrs. Higgins will not suffer fools gladly – least of all her son, who has inherited her cutting wit but not her sensitivity. Mark Pracht is earthy as Eliza’s errant dustman father. Sans the crowd-leasing upbeat numbers his character sings in the musical, he comes off as more of a legitimate character than comic relief. Laura Sturm and Rebecca Mauldin add fine performances as the downwardly mobile Mrs. Eynsford-Hill and her daughter Clara.
Production values are impressive for a non-Equity production. Eleanor Kahn’s set nicely establishes the elegant homes of Henry and Mrs. Higgins, and through a pair of movable arches, creates a suggestion of the exterior of London’s Royal Opera House. Theresa Ham’s costumes have the requisite period feel.
George Bernard Shaw’s play contains such rich characters – the misogynist anti-hero Higgins and the girl whose remarkable transformation may still not be enough to earn her any sort of independence in Edwardian London – that it merits exploration from a variety of angles. Director Vance Smith and the two companies have given us a worthy interpretation of Pygmalion on its 100th birthday.
Pygmalion continues through February 10th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $25, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at StageLeftTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Johnny Knight
Steve O’Connell (Henry Higgins), Mouzam Makkar (Eliza Doolittle), Sandy Elias (Col. Pickering), Lisa Herceg (Mrs. Higgins), Mark Pracht (Mr. Doolittle), Stephanie Sullivan (Mrs. Pearce), Laura Sturm (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Rebecca Mauldin (Clara Eynsford-Hill), Charles Riffenburg (Freddie Eynsford-Hill), Jeannie Saracino, Zev Valancy (ensemble)
behind the scenes
Vance Smith (director); Peter Robel (associate director); Tara Malpass (stage manager); Skye Robinson-Hillis (dramaturgy); Lindsay Bartlett (dialect coach); Kristin Steele (production manager), Eleanor Kahn (scenic design), Jessica Harpeneau (lighting design); Theresa Ham (costume design), Adam Smith (sound design); Cassy Schillo (properties design); Rick Julien (technical director); Kristen Ahern (asst. costume design); Jessica Stratton (draper); Charles Riffenburg (graphic design); Johnny Knight (photos)