Fairer than 'My Fair Lady'

'Pygmalion' cuts to the heart of the matter

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By Doug Deuchler

Blogger

Artbeat

It always drove George Bernard Shaw crazy that so many theatergoers were certain that the leading characters of his play, Pygmalion, were destined for a post-curtain wedding. 

The title is perhaps misleading. This comedy is not a romance, but many people remember the Greek myth about the sculptor who marries a beautiful statue that he created and brought to life. But Shaw's 1913 play doesn't follow the traditional formula of romantic comedy. 

 The Oak Park Festival Theatre Production of Pygmalion, which opened in Austin Gardens over the weekend, is a vivid and lovely eyeful. Jason Gerace's direction is smooth and perceptive, and the performances are delightful.

 Many of us fondly remember the Lerner & Loewe musical version of Shaw's show, My Fair Lady. Without the songs and the traditional romantic ending, I'll admit there were moments when I jumped ahead emotionally and thought, "Oh, now she's going to sing 'Just You Wait'" or "He's about to sing 'Get Me to the Church on Time.'" Big, splashy scenes were added to expand the Broadway musical and Hollywood movie adaptations that don't exist here — the Ascot Race, the Embassy Ball, and such. But those episodes were really unnecessary window dressing. 

 In the non-musical version, Kevin Theis is smug and overbearing as Professor Henry Higgins — yet he remains likeable. The fussy, egocentric, upper-class phonetician is emotionally clueless. He judges everyone he meets by their dialect, caring more about pronunciation than people. But Theis remains sympathetic. 

 Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl, is superbly portrayed by Amanda Drinkall. Higgins pulls her from the gutter and launches his experiment to pass her off as a society lady. Drinkall, who recently won a Jeff Award for her performance in a play directed by Gerace, is thrilling to watch. She starts as a soiled, shrieking cartoon and ends up as a complex, elegant, free-thinking woman. Eliza is proud from the get-go, often insisting she's been "a good girl" who sold flowers, never herself. Drinkall especially exhibits great fire in her final face-off with the snobbish professor.

 After Higgins teaches Eliza to speak and act like a high-born lady, she asserts her independence, adamantly refusing to be his cast-aside creation once the experiment is over. Eliza's her own self — strong and powerful. She's the men's equal. The character of Eliza illustrates female empowerment, feminism, and the role of women a century ago. It's still thrilling.

 Belinda Bremner is great as Higgins' indispensible housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. She's nobody's doormat, brandishing a total knowledge of human nature that gives her an authority well beyond her station.

 Jack Hickey, Oak Park Festival Theatre's artistic director, plays Higgins' colleague and chum, Colonel Pickering. He's a gentleman and a scholar whose courtesy offsets Higgins' arrogance and rudeness.

 Brian Rooney brings a vitality to ne'er-do-well Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father who transitions from happily drunken dustman to middle-class moralist. Like his daughter, Alfred is both a victim and a beneficiary of Higgins' amusing himself with people he views as insignificant as lab rats.

 Mrs. Clara Eynsford-Hill, a friend of Higgins' mother, is cleverly portrayed by Lynda Shadrake. Her rather goofy son, Freddy, played by Kyle Curry, falls head-over-heels for Eliza.

 Higgins' mother, a society dowager, is especially fun and charming. Crusty and droll, Mary Michell exhibits radiant good sense in the role. Mrs. Higgins has clearly weathered plenty of her son's meltdowns and hissy fits.

 The tech is all superior. Sean McIntosh's set design, which presents a span of several locations, is detailed and striking. Basically Henry's mother's formal parlor is on one side and Professor Higgins' two-story Wimpole Street abode is on the other. The set is impressively dressed with wall sconces, potted palms, marble busts, a gramophone, framed photos, etc. 

 Rachel Sypniewski's lovely 1913 costumes are charming and wonderful. 

 We're lucky to have such a high-caliber production in our community this summer. Perhaps due to its lack of show tunes and romantic resolution, Shaw's show remains relatively underperformed.

 As I watched this beautiful production, I tried not to think of My Fair Lady as an improvement on the original. I was impressed and applaud this terrific show. But I'll admit perhaps I'm one of those sappy, sentimental fools Shaw held in such contempt. I could not help but occasionally remember how the romantic musical adaptation is different. 

Yet this Pygmalion is truly a pleasure. Shaw saw his comedy as a daring social critique of early 20th-century British society and that's still there, loud and clear. Wonderful wit, great characters, and a stunning period piece. It's a very good time.

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