Bedlam's "Pygmalion": Silent Music Starts to Play

Vaishnavi Sharma, Eric Tucker, James Patrick Nelson, Grace Bernardo
 & Edmund Lewis in Bedlam's "Pygmalion"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Ever since George Bernard Shaw's 1913 comedy Pygmalion (now being performed at Cambridge's Central Square Theater by the New York company known as Bedlam, presented by Underground Railway Theater) was transformed by the team of Lerner and Loewe into their 1956 musical megahit My Fair Lady (successfully transformed yet again in the 1964 film version), it has become challenging to attend any staged performance of Shaw's original work without “hearing” a cue for a song. The story and the musical score are forever bound up in our collective memory, as is the romanticized happy ending (at least for the male lead) that was the musical's most significant alteration from Shaw. In this riotous production from Bedlam (who graced the local stage scene in recent seasons with their presentations of Saint Joan and Sense and Sensibility), all of the Shavian wit and wisdom remain intact.

Vaishnavi Sharma & Eric Tucker in Bedlam's "Pygmalion"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Yet with a few changes, and the choice to cast the role of Eliza Doolittle as a young woman from Delhi (Vaishnavi Sharma), Bedlam has introduced new levels of conflict and interest. There remains the issue of the bullying and misogynistic condescension and petulance of phoneticist Henry Higgins (Eric Tucker, also the wondrous and versatile Director and Sound Designer of this production), but Higgins is what he is, a snob unwilling to admit his affection for his “creation”. Shaw's play is indebted to the Cinderella fable on the one hand, and the realism of Ibsen's treatments of middle-class life on the other. As Eliza, Sharma is a comic gem, and the perfectly pompous Tucker is her perfectly imperfect foil, whereas Colonel Pickering (James Patrick Nelson, also playing Mrs. Eynsford-Hill) conveys his avuncular championship of Eliza, and her father Alfred P. Dolittle (Michael Dwan Singh) bemoans middle class morality. Also in the cast, in multiple roles, are housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Grace Bernardo, who also plays Clara Eynsford-Hill, and a parlor maid), and Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Edmund Lewis, also hysterically portraying Mrs. Higgins). They are all at their funniest when rapidly switching roles and hats. The creative contributions include Costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, Lighting by Les Dickert, and Scenic Design by Joseph Stallone and Elizabeth Rocha.

Whereas the film version of the musical portrayed Eliza's roots as being exposed in the Ascot scene (“Come on Dover, move yer bloomin' arse!”), Pygmalion does so at a garden party where, when asked if she's going to walk, she declaims, in pluperfectly elegant diction: “Not bloody likely! I am going in a taxi!”. If Shaw were to attend the current Broadway production of the musical version (at Lincoln Center), he would doubtless be pleased to hear how his female lead has regained the upper hand as, rather than fetch his slippers, she throws them at him and storms triumphantly out of the theater, faithful to Shaw's original intent. In the final scene of the 1956 staged My Fair Lady, Higgins bellows “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers!”, after which she is described in the script: “with tears in her eyes, she understands”. In Pygmalion, on the other hand, rather than restoring her role as slipper-fetcher, she is the one to bellow “what you are to do without me I cannot imagine” and then “she sweeps out”. In microcosm, Shaw here demonstrates whose story this is, who has become confident, determined and independent. It is Eliza who understands that it is Pickering who proves to be the true gentleman of class, having treated her as a lady long before she became one. As Shaw once wrote, art can never be anything but didactic; this play is more about class distinctions than speech. Bravo, Bedlam, you've done it yet again.

And would Shaw take umbrage with the minor little changes to the script, given our modern day issues of immigration and wall-obsessed hysteria? 
Not bloody likely.

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