Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back: PYGMALION

Photo credit: Flat Earth Theatre

Presented by Flat Earth Theatre
By George Bernard Shaw
Edited/directed by Devon Jones

August 22-30, 2014
Arsenal Center for the Arts
Watertown, MA
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Review by Kitty Drexel

Trigger warnings: Sexism, Racism, Classism

(Watertown, MA) My Fair Lady is derived from Shaw’s Pygmalion. Pygmalion is derived from the Greek myth by the same name from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It is the story of a sculptor, Pygmalion, who fell so hard in love with his sculpture that the goddess Aphrodite brought it to life. The sculpture isn’t given a name or granted personhood in the myth. Similarly, affluent Henry Higgins refuses to see impoverished Eliza Doolittle as more than a parroting animal until she provokes him into heated arguments. In addition to sexism and classism, the play’s dialogue also discusses racism. Flat Earth’s production includes actors of color. It takes a long, hard look at what it means to experience color, gender and educational privilege against the backdrop of London’s great equalizer: Tube delays.

While there are some clever ideas put into play in this production, not all of the elements of Pygmalion work – together or separately. For example, the set design by Allison Olivia Choat (also plays Freddy Eynsford Hill) is quite slick. The use of handheld torches to indicate travel and scene location, is also smart. Integrating modern with Edwardian England by using WWI protests as reason to keep our cast in Tube stations while peppering scenes with contemporary media devices is cunning. The notion that adult members of English aristocracy would engage in emotional or philosophical discussion on the Tube is misguided and unrealistic (these sorts of discussions are saved for the privacy of the home.). Higgins might be an ill-mannered brut but his family and friends are not.

Alas, the acting is in a similar state. The principle players all do an excellent job with their roles. Higgins (Chris Chiampa), Eliza (Jaclyn Johnson), and Pickering (Tom Beyer) have great chemistry together and great charisma as their characters. Johnson and Chiampa presented Eliza and Higgins as opposite sides of the same coin. She is as ignorant as he is arrogant. Johnson gives as good as she takes in all scenes. It is refreshing to see Eliza portrayed as a heroine of her own story and not a pitiful victim.

The bond between Higgins and Pickering is so palpable that it’s no wonder Eliza lashes out at Higgins in the final scene. It could be that Eliza doesn’t want to be treated as a trained pet; or,it could be that she’s suspicious of a budding romance between her tutors. They are confirmed bachelors. Pickering does move into Higgins’ home. They have much in common. Considering the magnetism on nightly display between the two gentlemen, would it be a surprise if they eloped to the Continent together? Rather, not.

Other members of the cast did not take to their roles as naturally as the leads. While there seemed to be a great amount of effort exerted on accents, the same effort was not put into character development. The notable exception being Stephen Turner as Eliza’s deadbeat dad, Alfred P. Doolittle, who was as convincingly smarmy as he was dirty.

Those with sensitive eyes should be warned that a blue LED-seeming light is used while the house is open. This light can hurt the eyes is stared into directly.

There are some great moments in Pygmalion but not enough to balance the poorly executed ones. Even if the production is wobbly, Jones’ adaptation of Shaw’s witty, intelligent script remains true. The best way to experience a script is off the page and in the real world. Flat Earth gives us that opportunity.

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