Who Could Argue A Few Flaws Weren't Permissible In Shaw's 'Pygmalion'?
By Dave Irwin
THE DAMNABLE thing about George Bernard Shaw, as priggish Professor Henry Higgins might say, is that he makes us think. On the heels of Quintessential Theatre's near perfect staging of Misalliance, Live Theatre Workshop now gives us Pygmalion. Though it has some niggling flaws, LTW upholds Shaw's reputation as one of the 20th century's most enduring playwrights.
The Pygmalion/My Fair Lady story of transformation is well known. Professor Henry Higgins (James Mitchell Gooden, artistic director of LTW) is a smug expert on linguistics with no time for social niceties. He transforms a street urchin into a duchess on a bet with fellow linguist Col. Pickering (Rich Amada). The cockney-spouting waif, flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Jennifer Williams), of course blossoms into a creature of beauty and grace who in turn transforms Higgins.
Along with a classic piece of storytelling, Shaw also sneaks in a healthy dose of political jousting and questions the moral responsibilities of science. We see the rigid class boundaries that socialist theory sought to address (Shaw as a leader in the Fabian movement which gave birth to the current Labor Party). As much as we may identify with it, Pygmalion is very much an English story, where the tyranny of social status was more keenly felt--Shaw even alludes to the American experiment in self-determination. By showing the heart of the underprivileged, Shaw moved the British middle and upper classes who attended his plays to a more egalitarian sentiment.
We also get an insight into the awakening social conscience of the Edwardian era through Higgins' callous disregard for Liza as a person, predisposed as he is to cast the woman aside after his experiment with her is finished. In a post-millennial blush where it was believed that science was supreme and would cure all the ills of mankind (instead of inventing gas warfare and aerial bombing), Shaw explores the responsibility of the scientist to what he creates (or unleashes)--and the need, therefore, to understand the implications of knowledge.
Of course, all this highfalutin' conceptual philosophizing would be the stuff yawns are made of without a great story well acted. Shaw supplied the story, and LTW has supplied worthy performances.
Williams is completely engaging as Eliza Doolittle, after having been squandered as a brainless flapper in the Quintessential production of Hay Fever last summer. This role demands discipline and skill as an actress, and she does not disappoint. We're taken by her combination of self-reliance and naiveté as the rough-edged, street-smart girl. Williams nicely plays out the comedic aspects of this pairing, making her uncouth whine a recurring joke. She is especially funny in her prelude to the bath (bathroom humor in the early 1900s involved the tub rather than the toilet). In turn, she handles her transformation perfectly, giving a believable portrayal of herself as a work in progress. Her accent and body language faithfully match each stage of her development, and Williams' expressive face plays well on the theatre's small stage. The only problem is that her accent is so thick early on, she's almost unintelligible--a vexing but fixable flaw.
As Professor Higgins, Gooden does a quality job of making his character dislikable but ultimately vulnerable. There were a number of minor flubs with his lines, but he disappears so well into the haughty role that these, too, prove excusable. His off-hand gestures and takes, while well thought out, appear very natural. His scenes with Heidi Brozek as his mother are particularly insightful as we see the child he was and secretly still is.
Amada as Col. Pickering is a steadying influence between the two poles of Higgins and Doolittle. His unruffled supporting role anchors the flailing kinetic characterization of the two combatants.
Under the direction of Elizabeth Seddon Gooden, the minor players all nicely complement the main action. Long-time LTW trouper Bruce Beiszki is a scene stealer as Eliza's happy-go-lucky mercenary father, Alfred. Brokez as Mrs. Higgins is particularly delightful, with her combination of Victorian primeness and a mother's common sense. Daryl Spruance as Higgins' maid, Mrs. Pierce, the conscience of the play, also displays good comedic timing and gives the needed sophisticated counterpoint to Williams' lower-class notions.
Director Gooden judiciously uses several pre-recorded voice-overs to cut scene changes without hampering the action. The play, faithful to Shaw, may disappoint those used to the happy Hollywood ending of My Fair Lady. This ends on an ambiguous note, somewhat jarring in its abruptness and the lack of closure we've come to expect.
Pygmalion is a work that still captures the imagination. LTW gives us a well-done version that's a worthwhile contribution to our current theatre-going options.
Pygmalion, directed by Elizabeth Seddon Gooden, continues through March 28 at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10 general, with a $1 discount for seniors and students. For information and reservations, call 327-4242.
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