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THEATER REVIEW Pygmalion
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2016-12-20

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Playwright: George Bernard Shaw. At: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: $42.50-$52.50. Runs through: Jan. 8

The musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play was a romantic comedy because that's what musicals do best, but because musicals also require Big Stars to draw audiences, its leading male was old enough to be the leading female's grandfather, setting a perplexing precedent for decades to come. The Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, however, returns to the play that Shaw wrote for its text.

The story is still that of the girl from the London slums looking to improve her lot and the professor who re-invents her as a high-society lady simply by altering her speech, but playgoers are quickly deterred from focusing on the sexual element in this relationship. ( Indeed, modern audiences may be surprised by the extent to which the teacher and his sponsor are compelled to deny any unsavory intentions toward their pupil. ) In this production, the implementation of their scheme is instead presented as a lesson in diverse—and just as often, contradictory—lifestyles.

Thus, the educated Henry Higgins, whose hobby enables him to augment his inherited income, exercises his privilege through slovenly grooming habits. vulgar language and an incorrigible disregard for polite discourse, adopting more circumspect habits only when his mentorly capacities mandate a show of civility. By contrast, as the ambitious Eliza's education progresses, she becomes increasingly convinced that independence, if not prosperity, comes easier to hardscrabble working-class women like herself than to her patrician sisters whose options are even more circumscribed. ( Observing the offspring of a family blue of blood and thin of purse, whose only escape from poverty is to marry well, she declares "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself." )

Kelsey Brennan renders up a suitably charming and slyly perceptive Eliza, while Nick Sandys' home-grown English accent continues to make him the go-to actor for brainy-Victorian-Brit roles. Their incisive repartee is tempered by commentary from Annabel Armour as Higgins' formidable mother, Laurie Larson as his practical housekeeper and Peter A. Davis as his associate Colonel Pickering, Shaw's portrait of the true gentleman ( to whom all men are gentlemen and all women, ladies ).

Hindsight informs us that a World War will soon demolish superficial barriers based in economics and ancestry—a theme that director Shawn Douglass underlines by framing our play in the wistful reminiscences of an older Eliza—but in the meantime, we can applaud the enthusiasm with which the sheltered Eynsford-Hill siblings embrace that same young upstart's street vernacular ( including an obscenity never before uttered on the stage until the play's premiere ), much as the youth of later eras would eagerly affect the argot of ghettos and juke joints.


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