Festival's 'Fair Lady' begins summer of feminism

'Pygmalion' first, followed by 'Taming of the Shrew'

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By Doug Deuchler



This week Oak Park Festival Theatre opens George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, the first of two summer productions performed outdoors in Austin Gardens, a half block north of Lake Street on Forest Avenue. 

"Austin Gardens is such an incredible setting at sundown," said director Jason Gerace. "Coming to see Pygmalion and enjoying a picnic on the lawn is a perfect way to spend a lovely, memorable summer evening."

There are two preview performances: Thursday, June 16, and Friday, June 17, (Community Appreciation Night, free admission) at 8 p.m. Preview admission is $10. The production officially opens this Saturday, June 18 at 8 p.m. 

"We've got a very exciting feminist season," said Kevin Theis, who has played roles in 10 different Oak Park Festival productions. "After Pygmalion we're opening Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew in July. We're going to have a very lively summer featuring strong, independent women."

Playwright Shaw took his title from the Greek legend about the sculptor who fell in love with his beautiful female statue and persuaded Venus to bring her to life so he could marry her. 

Shaw's play, first performed in 1913, reflects the Edwardian world many of us became mesmerized with during the first season of Downton Abby. 

Professor Henry Higgins, a snobbish linguistics expert, judges everyone he meets by their dialect. The whole play actually hinges on a wager. Higgins bets a distinguished colleague, Colonel Pickering, that he can transform a bedraggled Cockney flower girl into a duchess in three months. His experiment is a huge success but the young lady, Eliza Doolittle, is treated like a lab rat in the process. Higgins is emotionally clueless, caring more about pronunciation than people.

Many of us may never have seen this 103-year-old play, but the Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe musical version, My Fair Lady, is quite familiar and much beloved. The Lerner & Loewe songs magnify and investigate the relationship between Higgins and Eliza. Shaw, no doubt, would not be happy about that. He adamantly chose not to follow the traditional formula of a romantic comedy.

The Broadway musical, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, was a major hit in 1956. The opulent Warner Bros. movie version swept up most of the major Oscars eight years later in 1964. But there was resentment that Andrews had not been allowed to repeat her performance as Eliza on screen. The role went instead to Audrey Hepburn, an established movie star who had to have her voice dubbed.

 "My Fair Lady is widely known with generations of fans," notes Gerace. "But we're making this our own piece of art. People are already quite excited. We're taking the painting down off the wall. We'll look closely at the brush strokes and enjoy all the details. Down through the decades, there was consistently a desire to make the ending more romantic but Shaw rejected this."

"Jason has said he does not want our production to be some museum piece," added Belinda Bremner, who plays Mrs. Pearce, Professor Higgins' indispensible housekeeper. "He's pumping fresh air and new life into Shaw's timeless text, which is always our mission statement."

 "The play is lots of fun," said Festival Theatre's artistic director, Jack Hickey, who is also playing Professor Higgins' chum Colonel Pickering. "Shaw wrote it in 1913 — over a hundred years ago — but it makes so many relevant points that still resonate today." 

Pygmalion is a strong comedy but without the songs and romantic ending. "Our production is very true to Shaw," said Theis, who plays Professor Higgins. "Amanda Drinkall, who plays Eliza, is a delightful and lovely actress. We've been having so much fun working together."

"She won a Jeff Award just last week in a play directed by Jason," Bremner pointed out. "She's done TV and film work, too."

"The tricky part for me in playing Eliza is freeing up new angles with which to craft my interpretation," Drinkall explained. "I grew up with My Fair Lady. So Audrey Hepburn's performance was firmly planted in my brain. Over the years Shaw kept going back and tinkering with his ending. We're going with his original concept, not one of the later alterations. This comedy is a battle of the sexes, but it's intellectual warfare. There's a great deal of independence in Eliza Doolittle."

"Amanda starts with a whirlwind of energy," Bremner said, "yet we watch her deepen and grow with further intensity. She's like a dervish, then a duchess, and ultimately a towering beacon of strength as she asserts her independence. It's delicious to witness."

The cast includes other familiar faces, such as Lynda Shadrake as Mrs. Elysford-Hill and Brian Rooney as Eliza's ne'er-do-well father Alfred Doolittle. 

The production also features a detailed set and period costumes to bring 1913 London to life. Trader Joe's is providing flowers and three of Oak Park Festival Theatre's summer interns will join Eliza Doolittle as her flower-selling buddies at the beginning. This brings the total cast to 13.

Pygmalion officially opens Saturday night at 8 p.m. General admission is $29. Senior tickets cost $26. Students are $15. Children under 12 are free. The box-office phone number is 708-445-4440. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p. m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. There will be an additional performance at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13.

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Henrietta Atkin from Oak Park  

Posted: June 17th, 2016 8:48 PM

It's a great show. And very family friendly (pre-teens and up will enjoy it). Another theme in this show is that of the relationship between the Creator and the Created. The Creator makes a living work of art, but doesn't always see the consequences, which are usually troublesome as Higgins himself points out in the the play. The Created feels love towards its Creator, but also resentment at the Creator's superior knowledge - and detachment.

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