The genius of Bedlam’s artistic director Eric Tucker is that not once do you miss Lerner & Loewe’s score for “My Fair Lady” in this staging of Shaw’s comedy.
Tucker has added a few new wrinkles to Shaw’s 1914 play (suggested by the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea) about how a English dialectician and grammarian (Professor Henry Higgins played by Tucker) takes on a bet to pass off a flower girl (Eliza Doolittle) as a duchess in six months, and then discovers that he can’t live without the new woman he has created. However, her new problem is as she can’t return to the streets now that she is a lady, the only thing she can do is marry her self off, but to whom? Although the cast has been whittled down to a mere six, the audience unknowingly becomes the extras for the crowd scene in the first act which takes in the portico of St. Paul’s Church near Covent Garden Opera House as theatergoers assemble after a performance only to find a rain shower.
While the assembled audience waits for our play to begin in what appears to be an anteroom to the theater, the main characters are mingling among us without our knowing it. Suddenly, an argument breaks out: a young woman flower seller (Eliza) is fearful that a man (Professor Higgins) is taking down her words and thinks he is a policeman, but in fact he is a teacher of languages and dialects. An older gentleman comes to his defense only to reveal that this second man (Colonel Pickering) is a student of Indian languages and has traveled halfway around the world to see him. Higgins calls out his address to Pickering to come visit him the next day and we are ushered into the theater.
Scenic designer John McDermott has turned the black box space at the Sheen Center into an intimate amphitheater with the audience sitting around three sides of Higgins’ laboratory/study with no viewer more than four rows from the action. When Eliza arrives to arrange for lessons on her small income, we discover what we already suspected: this Eliza has been born in India and she is prone to speak in Hindi when she gets excited, just like her father Alfred Doolittle does when he follows her to Wimpole Street to see what he can get out of her good fortune – when she sends for her things but not her clothes. This adds a new, contemporary level to the play: Eliza is an immigrant rather than an East End cockney which contributes to the play’s current relevance.
This very intimacy (as well as the small cast) makes this a very different experience than previously with the audience as voyeurs in Higgins’ lessons. As always in Bedlam’s productions, the few cast members double and even triple in various roles. Here with a change of hat, voice and/or posture one character become another. Eliza and Higgins’ visit to his mother’s “at home day” has new hilarity as Edmund Lewis plays the aristocratic and dignified Mrs. Higgins as well as guest Freddy Eynsford-Hill just by adding a man’s hat, just as Nigel Gore’s Col. Pickering becomes Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Freddy’s mother, by switching between two hats and two voices. Annabel Capper (previously Higgins’ housekeeper) plays both Freddy’s sister Clara and Mrs. Higgins’ parlour maid. Performed without an intermission, the set transition is simply made by drawing a curtain across Higgins desk and putting out more chairs for Mrs. Higgins’ At Home Day. It couldn’t be simpler.
The fourth act scene in which Eliza is in an emotional upheaval after the garden party she, Higgins and Pickering have attended is made extremely dramatic by placing her so close to the audience. We almost feel that we will be attacked by her and Higgins’ feelings finally boil over. Dressed in Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s elegant black frock (one of several outfits), Eliza has become the lady that Higgins has promised. Of course, none of this would work without the fine acting by the versatile ensemble of six, four company members and two actors new to Bedlam’s ways.
Tucker gives a magnificently nuanced and layered performance as the teacher who is neurotic, childish and intellectual by turns. Bearded and usually frowning, he is a child at heart as well as an expert in his specialty. His delivery is quick enough to make us hear his lines as if for the first time. He uses no British accent which takes some getting used to, but eventually this stops being noticeable.
He is matched by Vaishnavi Sharma as his Indian Eliza. Not only does she beautifully transition from the flower girl of the streets to a well-spoken young woman, she also changes from the cat-like woman who would rather scratch his eyes out in retaliation for a slight to a believable facsimile of a high-born lady of good society. Her timing is also impeccable and she gets all of her digs in throughout the play. As the gentlemanly and genteel Col. Pickering, Gore is to the manner born and his authentic sounding and suave English accent suggests that he was born across the pond.
Lewis has a field day playing the supercilious and patrician Mrs. Higgins who is continually telling her son off, and makes Freddy Eynsford-Hill a bit less foppish than usual. As Eliza’s father, a “member of the deserving poor,” Rajesh Bose is a suave con-artist who finds the table turns against him in the play’s final scene. Like Ms. Sharma’s Eliza, his Indian Alfred Doolittle fits right into Shaw’s overall scheme. In her three separate roles, Ms. Capper demonstrates that all three are disapproving in different ways.
Eric Tucker’s Bedlam production of Shaw’s Pygmalion is a mesmerizing evening in the theater. Even reducing the cast to six and with the elimination of any and all intermissions in this five act play, the evening seems to go by in a moment. Aside from the combining of roles, some of the lines have been cut or tweaked a bit but the uninitiated will not even notice. The real beauty of the production which is Bedlam’s mission is to reinvent an old chestnut to seem like new again. In this, they have succeeded beyond one’s wildest expectations. Shaw’s 1914 comedy gleams like new.
Bedlam’s Pygmalion (through April 22, 2018)
Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.sheencenter.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes without an intermission
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