Not That Kind of Review: Bedlam’s “Pygmalion”

The cast; Photo by Nile Scott Studios

Presented by Bedlam Theatre Company
Directed by Eric Tucker
Written by George Bernard Shaw

January 31, 2019 – March 3, 2019
Central Square Theatre
450 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
Central Square Theater on Facebook

Review by Diana Lu

(Cambridge, MA) Central Square Theatre hosts New York City’s Bedlam Theatre Company in their revamped version of Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. This is the classic story of English phonetician Henry Higgins (Eric Tucker) discovering and training working class waif Eliza Doolittle (Vaishnavi Sharma) on the speech and manners of a proper English lady, to the ultimate folly of both. Bedlam’s new interpretation returns to Shaw’s original feminist conception of Eliza and Henry’s fraught relationship and also changes the Doolittle family to Indian immigrants, ostensibly to reflect modern day issues of gender, class, and immigration in the US. It was a very well done production, and I’m sure there will be many reviews which praise all its various technical merits. This review isn’t one of them.

What. The. Fuck. Bedlam? What in the actual fuck were you guys thinking, just shoe-horning in the “minor detail” that Eliza Doolittle is an Indian woman, in the most superficial and simple-minded ways possible. Yeah, the Doolittles had thick Indian-sounding accents (bordering on racist caricature, btw) instead of Cockney. Eliza wore a sari when she was being presented as a Duchess instead of an English lady’s gown. There was passing reference to the family being immigrants from Punjab. Outside of that, there was no reference at all to Eliza’s identity as an Indian woman, an immigrant, or how either of those facts inherently change her station in IMPERIAL LONDON and how the WHITE BRITISH PEOPLE dictating her life would have treated her. Shaw’s original play was an analysis on gender and class relationships in England at a very specific time in its history. The Doolittles being Indian FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGES THE STORY. 

Race, ethnic identity, immigration, and colonialism aren’t trivial details that can be laid on top of a story like window dressing. To treat these histories, identities, and relationship dynamics as such is as insulting as it is idiotic. Furthermore, the ways that gender, class, race, ethnicity, and immigration status intersect in the UK EVEN NOW are fundamentally different from the way they do in the US. Trying to hamfist a metaphor about the American political landscape now into a story about the British Empire of a century ago without thoughtful and nuanced rewriting is about as “fresh” and “inventive” as trying to use a banana as a plunger. 

It makes this play look like a revisionist fantasy of a post-racial British Empire, which frankly, is more reflective of what the white liberal political landscape of the US looks like than anything Bedlam inserted into the play itself.To see such a flawless production with such fine detail paid to every other piece, with just this one big piece completely ignored/butchered absolutely breaks my heart. It’s just another reminder that any talk of race is so viscerally abhorred in this country and the one thing that makes every well-intentioned white liberal American SO SO UNCOMFORTABLE. 

But I can’t ignore it. It’s part of myself. YOU ALL MADE THIS an intrinsic part of my history and my identity, and it is a part that has never been and is still not understood, recognized, or welcome in white liberal spaces. I am not ok with that. People of color in this country are not ok with that and we have been saying so FOR DECADES. When are you all going to finally fucking listen? Because this play right here, is not self-examination or acting on your progressive ideals. It’s performing the bare minimum in a virtue signaling mutual masturbation circle. I know I’m being harsh, but I have to say it because there are PRECIOUS FEW theatre critics of color, so I’m sure nobody else is going to, and frankly, Eliza Doolittle wouldn’t have held back on her language either.

Ironically, this all does make me relate to Eliza Doolittle’s situation more, and why she had to go her own way. As she said, “all I want is a little acknowledgement, a little kindness.”

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