For those who have come to know the irascible George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion chiefly from the Cinderella romances of subsequent iterations, there are many recognizable commonalities to feel comfort with in the excellent production underway from those dedicated Shavians at Washington Stage Guild.
The rainy opening at Covent Garden; the ear-splitting Cockney caterwauling of ragged flower girl Eliza Doolittle; the Edwardian clutter of phonetics geek Henry Higgins’ Wimpole Street study; the heated tête-a-têtes between the tight-laced, solipsistic Henry and the mulish upstart Eliza; the flower girl’s dubious transformation at Henry’s hand as he “makes a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe.”
But for those not acquainted with Shaw or this source material for the beloved musical and film My Fair Lady, they may be in for a rude awakening. The old firebrand found sentimentality disgusting and his Pygmalion could have been subtitled: An Intellectual Anti-Romance in Five Acts, with a heaping dose of what ails you for good measure, according to the Fabian G.B. Shaw.
Yes, the play is clearly a by-product of Shaw’s animating life-drive, telling others what’s best for them, or as the academics put it, social criticism: of the British class system, relations between the sexes and even romantic mythology itself, as it turns the ancient Greek fairy-tale from which it’s named inside out and beats it with a broom before wringing it dry of any passion or tenderness at all.
The core problem with Shaw’s Pygmalion is innate to an audience’s enjoyment: it’s often rather unpleasant. And that’s too bad, because Shaw is one of the great modern playwrights to study, and Pygmalion is blessed with rich language and provocative ideas. And there is humor, but not enough if it, as Shaw’s uncompromising and misanthropic über-vision flattens any green shoots of joy.
That being said, director Bill Largess’ production stays true to the 100-year-old original, ranging from a broad comedy of manners to mean satire, with the consistently strong cast proving their mettle.
Steven Carpenter is dealt a difficult hand in taking on the cold, supercilious Henry, one of the stage’s most unlikeable protagonists in his original rendering, but turns in an accomplished performance. Carpenter is sharp and acerbic, and displays wonderful comic timing. He inhabits the exacting, exasperating professor with remarkable precision and tireless energy. But unlike the Henry most audiences identify with, this original version has absolutely no redeeming or likeable traits.
Henry is most likely a mouthpiece for the playwright himself. Like Shaw, Henry is an asexual, rationalist bully, a man who cuts with words. He thinks of people as an aggregate of their phonetic origins. This sculptor has no use for his Galatea other than a laboratory device and his unrelenting meanness will be a turnoff for some, I presume, who may wish that Rex Harrison would waltz in with a song.
Rana Kay is superb in the play’s other demanding role as the pulled-about Eliza. Kay emits Eliza’s otherworldly squeals and bleats of indignation, but also displays the warm vulnerability of the girl plucked from the lowest social milieu and dropped into a higher caste.
Kay shines in the play’s funniest scene, when Eliza attempts to engage in “the new small talk,” with Higgins’ mother (played with aplomb by Lynn Steinmetz) and a group of higher-caste social climbers.
I feel that Kay could have been stronger in the climactic scene, when Eliza unshoulders Henry’s yoke from her once and for all. I felt her Eliza in this critical confrontation lacked conviction and raw power. There’s still the unpleasant taint of abused wife syndrome about her and a more strongly delivered rebuke would have been just the thing. I don’t buy Shaw’s treatment at this juncture by the way, wherein Henry all of the sudden thinks of Eliza not as a “millstone” or “squashed cabbage leaf” but worthy of his respect in the wink of an eye. Contemporary audiences need a little more to go on, whether it be self-awareness or remorse.
Closes November 18, 2012
Washington Stage Guild at The Undercroft Theatre
Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church
900 Massachusetts Avenue NW,
Thursdays thru Sundays
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission.
Tickets: $40 – $50
Conrad Feininger is grandly magnificent as Eliza’s crooked father Alfred. Feininger’s consummate performance is a wonder of pathetic and funny, with just a tad of East End switchblade menace about him to make it real.
Rounding out the cast, Vincent Clark is a fine, consistent Colonel Pickering, the honey to Higgins’ vinegar, and Laura Giannarelli keeps Henry in his place as the unmovable Mrs. Pearce, while the Eynsford Hills (Mimsi Janis, Nora Palka and Phil Dickerson) gamely play comic depictions of Shaw’s detested middle class, providing much of the laughter.
The technical and design aspects of Washington Stage Guild’s Pygmalion are also sterling. Kirk Kristoblas’ set simply but convincingly establishes three different settings; Marianne Meadows’ lighting and Marcus Darnley’s sound effects are first-rate and Basmah M. Alomar’s costumes are comely.
Washington area audiences have the distinct good fortune in having a chance to experience this splendid production of Shaw’s Pygmalion at Washington Stage Guild and then viewing the Molly Smith treatment of My Fair Lady at Arena Stage beginning this week, a choice of popular liberty that would have Shaw burning red in the face were he alive to witness it. See both, tell your friends, blog about the contrasts, and let’s get a discussion going.
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Bill Largess. Features Nora Palka, Mimsi Janis, Phil Dickerson, Rana Kay, Vincent Clark, Steven Carpenter, Laura Giannarelli, Conrad Feininger and Lynn Steinmetz. Setting by Kirk Kristoblas, costumes by Basmah M. Alomar, lighting by Marianne Meadows and sound by Marcus Darnley. Arthur Nordlie was production stage manager. Produced by Washington Stage Guild. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.