Arts theater review

The squashed cabbage leaf prevails

Shaw’s play done right

8956 bedlam pygmalion 2
Vaishnavi Sharma and Eric Tucker play as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, respectively, in Bedlam's 'Pygmalion' at Central Square Theater.
Nile Scott Studios

Bedlam’s Pygmalion
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Eric Tucker
Central Square Theater
Jan. 31–March 3

My Fair Lady, a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, was one of the more well-worn VHS’s at home. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” became my sister’s and my choicest a cappella set list for belting out when home alone. It was my introduction to linguistics and creative insults (“draggle-tailed guttersnipe” is my sister’s affectionate pet name). Later in life, I read the original play Pygmalion, reveling in the wit and sparkle of Shaw’s writing. As one would expect, the thematic undercurrents of the play flowed much stronger without interruption by catchy Broadway tunes.

Returning to Central Square Theater once more, Bedlam is putting on an incisive, witty performance of Shaw’s most popular work. The story: professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins (Eric Tucker), and his friend, Colonel Pickering (James Patrick Nelson), take up the challenge of teaching a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Vaishnavi Sharma), to speak like a duchess. The production is true to the spirit of the play as Shaw intended it and its delivery is superb.

We first encounter our Galatea on the steps of Tottenham Court Road where she is hawking her wares amidst a throng of people. At the end of the first scene, all but the six Bedlam actors sit down amidst the audience. I applaud Bedlam’s creative use of audience members to realize an effect that is otherwise inaccessible with their economical troupe. Another feat they pull off splendidly is having most of the actors play at least two different characters. This duality is leveraged to stage a priceless tea party that feels like a merry-go-round (despite the unusual linear seating arrangement) as actors lift and lower props, change their accents, and worsen their posture — reaching its apex when Lewis has an extended exchange with himself and ends it with a perfect awkward silence. In short, the staging and set design are first-rate.

Instead of the thick Cockney accent that the character of Eliza Doolittle would normally sport, this Eliza’s utterances reveal an Indian provenance (Higgins later specifies Delhi). My first reaction to this tailoring was ambivalent, but there are two reasons which make this an inspired directorial choice. The first reason is that it creates an immediate tie between Eliza Doolittle and Colonel Pickering, who has spent a large amount of time in India. The second, and more significant, is that for an American audience, a Cockney accent does not have the same connotation of otherness that it would have had for Shaw’s twentieth-century British audience. In fact, the American tendency to romanticize British accents indiscriminately would have the exact opposite effect to the one intended by the author, and the central theme of language as a symbol of socioeconomic divides would be significantly dampered.

Eliza Doolittle is a character that undergoes a rapid transformation over the course of the play. Sharma makes this transformation believable, but more than that, she radiates exuberance on stage and conveys emotions with such depth of feeling that one feels like a robot imposter watching her. When Higgins stuffs a piece of chocolate in her mouth to give her a taste of the good life, tears spring up in Sharma’s eyes, and she is able to simultaneously convey her desire to hide her enjoyment from Higgins and the absolute bliss that a well-timed piece of chocolate can bring. Eliza, as a character, often conveys several strong facets at any given moment, coupling grit, elegance, wounded pride, perseverance, weariness, or wonder. Sharma embodies these naturally, as though she’s living through the play. Her accents and their evolutions too are perfectly executed, and her outbursts, gesticulations, and delivery of Shaw’s hilarious dialogue provoked rolling peals of laughter.

Actor and director Eric Tucker portrays a Higgins who thinks himself above everyone and everything. As he says himself, he “treats a duchess as he would a flower girl.” Watching him, I learned how to eat an apple with supreme contempt (for you slow pupils out there, he does it twice). His haughtiness does not translate into composure — he is simultaneously petulant, impatient, and surprisingly sensitive. The script makes it clear that he is not emotionally mature enough to express what Eliza means to him or even to talk to her without insulting her. But pulling that off on stage without veering into accidental comedy or insincerity requires Tucker’s true talent. Nelson, with his deep mellifluous voice and tall willowy figure, embodies the graciousness and geniality of a true gentleman in his role as Higgins’s elegant foil, Colonel Pickering.  

Edmund Lewis steals the show as both Higgins’s mother and Freddy Eynsford-Hill, in a series of astonishingly nimble back-and-forths between the two characters. He comes across as a believably caring mother who rules with an iron fist — not just a stock upper-class matron. Mrs. Higgins is the only person Prof. Higgins will listen to, and, by his quipping remonstrances and withering looks, Lewis makes us see why.

Class divides and social mobility are themes at the heart of this play. One might think that Eliza’s problems are solved now that she has learned to speak like a lady, but instead she finds herself trapped between two worlds, belonging to neither. Bedlam artfully develops this theme, not just through Shaw’s words, but through small moments: to the same piano accompaniment, two scenes juxtapose the way Eliza and Higgins dress. Eliza lovingly, methodically drapes herself in a sari. Higgins irately, inattentively, throws his ironed white shirt on the chair and kicks off his shoes, inured to the luxury he was born into.

Bernard Shaw wrote a play in support of women's independence, but at every turn, actors, directors, and producers are trying to slap on a romantic, sentimental ending. Thankfully, Bedlam does not take this liberty. At the end of the play, Eliza is able to “retain her pride and triumph to the end,” as Shaw once wrote in a letter. This production of Pygmalion will make you laugh and will make you think — I recommend it wholeheartedly. I look forward to seeing what Bedlam conjures up next when they return to Central Square Theater later this year with a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.