BWW Review: BEDLAM'S PYGMALION: The Unsinkable Eliza Doolittle
Written by George Bernard Shaw, Directed by Eric Tucker; Costume Designer, Charlotte Palmer-Lane; Lighting Designer, Les Dickert; Scenic & Properties Co-Designers, Joseph Stallone and Elizabeth Rocha; Sound Designer, Eric Tucker; Assistant to the Director, David Keohane; Dramaturg & Artistic Associate, Hilary Rappaport; Stage Manager, Brian M. Robillard; Assistant Stage Manager, Sarah Hutchins; Sound Engineer, Kem Stewart; Wardrobe Supervisor, Alexei Glick; Assistant to Lighting Designer, Bella Tasha
Performances through March 3 at Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-576-9278 x1 or www.centralsquaretheater.org
Generally speaking, the word bedlam evokes lots of negative connotations, such as uproar, confusion, and pandemonium, to mention but a few. However, hubbub and hoopla are welcome attributes of the theater company known as Bedlam, and they are back at Central Square Theater for the third time in five seasons, under the auspices of Underground Railway Theater, to present Bedlam's Pygmalion. Bedlam's Artistic Director Eric Tucker directs the production and plays Professor Henry Higgins, the phonetician whose vanity project makes a lady out of a street vendor of flowers, the unsinkable Eliza Doolittle.
A little more than a century after Pygmalion was written by George Bernard Shaw, based on a Greek mythological figure, the play continues to resonate in the #MeToo era with its feminist ideology. Notwithstanding Tucker's editing or alterations, this remains Eliza's story, charting her journey from poverty-stricken gutter snipe to genteel lady, and Vaishnavi Sharma grabs hold of the role and rides it for all it's worth. When she is onstage, she is captivating and holds the audience in her thrall. In her absence, we miss her and can empathize when Higgins laments that he's "grown accustomed to her voice and appearance."
Bedlam's acting ensemble consists of only six actors who take on about ten roles, changing costumes, accents, and sensibility to shift from one to another. Undoubtedly, the best display of this metamorphosis occurs in a scene at the home of Mrs. Higgins (Edmund Lewis) when her son Henry, Colonel Pickering (James Patrick Nelson), and the Eynsford-Hills (Mrs. E-H and her grown children Freddy and Clara) come to visit all at the same time. The guests sit in a row of chairs, one in front of the other, and converse. Nothing remarkable there, until the conversation picks up and each of the actors shifts quickly, seamlessly, and repeatedly from one character to another. Lewis doubles as Freddy (by donning a homburg hat and tiny spectacles), Nelson plays Mrs. E-H (with a big, floppy hat and falsetto voice), and Grace Bernardo, who is aces as Higgins' buttoned up housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, toggles back and forth between the upper class Clara and a lowly parlour maid, busily wielding a feather duster. Michael Dwan Singh rounds out the cast playing Eliza's father Alfred Doolittle and unnamed bit parts.
As is often the case at Central Square Theater, the playing area is configured with the audience in stadium seating on two sides facing each other with the stage in the center. For the most part, Bedlam does a good job with the blocking, allowing everyone to have a good view of the action. The exception is at the start of the show when about twenty to thirty audience members are standing on the floor around the actors, replicating the bystanders in the market place. However, for those of us seated in the lower rows, they made it really difficult to see what was going on, as well as to know who was reciting which lines. Fortunately, once the action moves on the Higgins abode, the crowd disperses.
One of Tucker's tweaks is to designate Eliza and her father as being of Indian descent, adding another layer of difference between them and Higgins. In service to her ethnicity, when we meet Eliza she is not spewing unintelligible cockney, but an unintelligible Indian patois. When she is surrounded by the crowd in the opening scene, I had no idea what she was saying, but I know the story and what is happening. I imagine it can be very challenging for someone who doesn't. My sense is that there's more than enough food for thought and entertainment with the original issues of class and gender, and the addition of race to the mix is not really addressed.
Tucker opts for a stripped down production with a variety of chairs and a table or two being maneuvered around to suggest the various settings (Joseph Stallone and Elizabeth Rocha, scenic and properties co-designers), with additional atmosphere provided by lighting designer Les Dickert and Tucker's sound design. Costume designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane does a wonderful job of dressing Eliza for the many steps along her journey, including a colorful sari for her big night at the ball, and dresses the upper class denizens in appropriate styles.
Bedlam's Pygmalion played Off-Off-Broadway in March and April of 2018 with half of the same cast members, receiving critical acclaim. The hallmarks of any Bedlam production are their inventiveness, their vitality, their humor, and their acting skills, especially how well they perform as an ensemble. This time around is no exception. Their third visit is equally charming.