REVIEW: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Pasadena Playhouse, 26 March 2015
Reviewed by Catherine Siggins
George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion is considered to be Shaw’s best play. The story of a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins (Bruce Turk) who on a bet with a colleague, Col. Pickering (Stan Egi), embarks on the challenge of transforming uneducated flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Paige Lindsey White) into a lady. Profoundly insightful and humorous, it savagely attacks the repressive morals of the time, the inequality between the sexes, financial and emotional co-dependence within marriages, and the imprisonment of all who live within this strict and unforgiving class system.
In 1956, composer Alan Jay Lerner did a Henry Higgins on Pygmalion and transformed it into a romantic musical we know as My Fair Lady. However, Shaw never intended Higgins and Eliza to end up together. Sadly, the musical has forever changed the audience’s focus on Shaw’s work by insisting on a romantic ending between Higgins and Eliza, and that side steps Shaw’s brilliant commentary on Edwardian society, and a class structure that imprisoned all who lived in England, regardless of their status. It’s also hard to imagine what a stir this play made when it debuted. Shaw’s eccentric characters, their unusual ethics, colorful language and cursing were considered quite shocking, and Eliza’s utterance of the word “bloody” in her line "Walk? Not bloody likely!" caused tremors. The humor remains for today’s audiences but now the emphasis is on entertainment rather then questioning modern codes of behavior.
Director Jessica Kubzansky’s production lacks consistency and occasionally wobbles, though there are elements to recommend it. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’ theatre set is impressive and visually striking. She has stripped Higgins’ library down to a cast-iron skeleton of the industrial age architecture of the period, and the play opens with a wonderful visual metaphor of falling text - echoing the opening scene of a rainy night outside of a London theater. The use of this metaphor, projected words, streaming or falling onto the stage, lends itself well to the central theme of the play – that of language and its role in shaping and reshaping one’s environment and reputation.
Bruce Turk succeeds in capturing the contrary moods and idiosyncrasies of Henry Higgins, “a middle aged, middle class professor, a confirmed bachelor with a mother-fixation” as Shaw himself described him, though he leans a little too heavily on his childish nature, which takes away from Higgins power and central role. Paige Lindsey White, gives a capable performance as Eliza, though it’s hard to buy her as the yowling flower “girl” in the first act, opposite her leading men who seem to be around the same age, and don’t quite have the required demeanor of men of their social class or experience.
The production could have benefited from greater attention given to the various English accents, which to some of the cast either overshadowed their performance or detracted one’s attention from the action within the play, especially in the opening scene. Shades of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
The saving grace of the production are the excellent and well studied performances by Ellen Crawford as Mrs. Pearce, Time Winters as Alfred P. Doolittle, and Mary Anne McGarry as Mrs. Higgins, who bring a calm maturity, depth and consistency to the otherwise unbalanced production.