“Bloody, Bloody Eliza Doolittle”
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (written 1912; premiered in Vienna in 1913; and first seen in London in 1914) has always been one of the great writer’s audience favorites. Revivals may have dropped off somewhat in the years following the enormous success of Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical comedy version, My Fair Lady, one of the greatest of its genre, and currently in revival at Lincoln Center. For those familiar with My Fair Lady, either on stage or screen, its songs are so indelible it’s impossible not to think about them while watching even a good production of the original play.
Pygmalion’s latest revival is in the hands of Off Broadway’s Bedlam, a company that, under Eric Tucker’s direction, has earned a growing reputation for Tucker’s cleverly innovative approaches to mostly British classical material. Its last production prior to Pygmalion was Peter Pan, whose original appeared on the London stage only a decade before Shaw’s comedy.
In case you’re worrying that this revival will take unwarranted liberties with a beloved text, or present it in so radical a way that its charms will be diminished, rest assured that the play’s heart and soul remain; however, also be aware that Bedlam continues to employ modern theatrical mannerisms that might not be to everyone’s taste.
Pygmalion, for those unfamiliar with its plot, is a kind of mashup of themes from Cinderella, Taming of the Shrew, Frankenstein, and the classical myth of the sculptor Pygmalion whose statue of Galatea is so beautiful it comes to life. Henry Higgins (Tucker), a self-satisfied professor of phonetics, bets his friend, Col. Pickering (Nigel Gore), visiting from India, that, within half a year, he can educate Eliza Doolittle (Vaishnavi Sharma), a shabby guttersnipe of a Cockney flower girl, to the point where she can fool her social superiors into believing she’s a beautiful duchess.
In the background of this scheme are various lively characters, principally Higgins’s no-nonsense housemaid, Mrs. Pearce (Annabel Capper); Eliza’s politically voluble father, Alfred Doolittle (Rajesh Bose), a dustman who rails against middle-class morality, calls himself “the undeserving poor,” and, to his dismay, eventually strikes it rich; Higgins’s mother, Mrs. Higgins (Edmund Lewis), a grande dame; and the Eynsford-Hills: Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Gore), her daughter, Clara (Annabel Capper), and her son, Freddy (Lewis).
The latter is the bland young man Shaw suggested would marry Liza rather than Higgins, whose failure to become Liza’s husband always has been perhaps the play’s most controversial element. It even prompted a revised, if ambiguous, ending in the movie version, and a similarly vague one in the film of My Fair Lady, where, unlike the stage version, the hint of a future between the flower girl and phonetics professor lingers.
Pygmalion has an odd structure—the scene where Eliza passes herself off successfully at an ambassador’s party—happens offstage midway through, and the final scenes of the play sometimes seem more like a debate than a drama, as the domineering Higgins struggles to maintain control over the now self-aware Eliza, who fights for her independence from him.
But it does reach a dramatic climax toward the end and we see clearly in Bedlam’s production that, not only will Eliza never marry her tyrannical mentor, her statue has come to life, she’s found her liberty, and he, having felt things he’s been repressing all along, is at a complete loss.
Now for the production: Pygmalion is typically staged in Edwardian costumes (the 1938 movie, though, used 1938 clothing) with elaborate sets to suggest exteriors, like the opening in Covent Garden during a rainstorm, or well-to-do interiors, like Higgins’s book-lined study. Bedlam’s aesthetic, though, is to spend a minimum on scenic and costume elements, stripping them to their most essential elements.
The Sheen Center’s Black Box has been arranged to create an audience waiting area outside the auditorium, one wall covered with period advertisements. The spectators are forced to mill around there in uncomfortably close quarters until the actors, in semblances of period wear, including a man or two in women’s hats, pop up among them. It appears we’re in for an evening of immersive theatre. As they move among us, they speak the opening lines, creating the impression we’re all part of the Covent Garden crowd in which Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza first appear.
Then the fog lifts and, apart from a sprinkling of fourth wall-breaking dialogue and some acting in the aisles, the kind of immersion promised in the prologue is abandoned as we’re ushered to our seats in the theatre proper. This is a miniature, tiered, amphitheater-like structure erected around a three-quarters round set. Its few basic furnishings essentially will remain stationary throughout. The room’s actual staircase, along one wall, will be part of some scenes, or hidden by a striped traveler curtain when the action moves elsewhere. And the actors will be inches from your face.
Les Dickert’s lighting keeps the audience lit as well as the stage through all but a few scenes. The costumes, by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, while definitely Edwardian in feeling, including floor-length dresses for the women (one of which has a sari influence because of the casting), have a deliberately thrift-shop look. This is not a Cecil Beaton show but it gets the job done.
There are a mere six actors in the production. As per other Bedlam productions, several actors are required to play two or three roles. Two men, Gore and Lewis, also play women, doing so by simply changing their hats. One scene is choreographed so that, as they sit on chairs, they keep changing their hats so we’ll know who’s talking at any time.
No wigs are worn; thus, Lewis, a stocky actor resembling a young Don Rickles, performs Mrs. Higgins in a buzz cut and orange gown, putting on a gray derby and glasses to become Freddy. Any regular theatregoer has seen this kind of thing many times before. It’s the kind of too-cute device that draws attention to itself and away from the play, regardless of how well-executed it is. Another familiar, but unnecessary, technique is having the actors sometimes break the fourth wall to speak directly to an audience member, as if seeking approval for their comments.
The script has been pared down to a nonstop, fast-paced two hours, and is played for the most part in a straightforward, realistic way such as you might expect from any conventional interpretation. For all the show’s vivacity, however, it does occasionally lag.
Perhaps the most eccentric choice is to have Eliza speak with a kind of crude Indian accent, indecipherable at first. Is it Hindi? Obviously intended to underpin considerations of racial oppression, which happen not to be Shaw’s concern, it does suggest how difficult Higgins’s task is. Indian-born actress Sharma does it very well, just as she does with the character’s refined, upper-class diction later on. She gets a laugh when Eliza’s famous lapse arrives: while conversing in snooty tones with Mrs. Higgins and others, she rattles the teacups with a full-out Cockney “Not bloody likely,” Then again, it's an illogical crack from someone whose accent has been changed from Cockney to South Asian.
Both Sharma and the Indian-American actor, Bose, who plays her father, are showstealers. She may not physically conform to traditional ideas of Eliza but, without the considerable feeling and intellectual penetration she provides, this production would be in trouble. Sharma’s fighting feminism is just right for our times.
Bose’s Doolittle, despite using a Cockney dialect instead of his daughter’s Indian one, is a hurricane of speechifying force, helping highlight Shaw’s class-related concerns. Tucker, not the most charismatic of leading men, makes Higgins a rather nasty piece of egotism, so it’s easy to accept Eliza’s rejection of him. Oddly, his snotty phonetician has the least authentic accent in the company. Capper quite sharply defines the rigid, but sympathetic Mrs. Pearce, and Lewis’s drag performance as Higgins’s mother is surprisingly restrained. Gore’s Pickering starts off well enough; if there were woodwork, though, I’d say he fades into it.
There are enough joys in Bedlam's Pygmalion to make it worth a visit to Bleecker Street, especially if you'd like to compare it to My Fair Lady. Will you fail to hear the music to "I've Grown Accustomedodd to Her Face" when Higgins tells Eliza, "I've grown accustomed to your voice and appearance"? Not bloody likely.
Sheen Center for Thought and Culture
18 Bleecker St., NYC
Through April 22