Monday, September 14, 2015

Shaw’s Shaw: Pygmalion and You Never Can Tell

Jeff Meadows (left),  Harveen Sandu, and Patrick McManus in Pygmalion at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Peter Hinton’s production of Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Shaw Festival is set in contemporary London, and for nearly two acts (the play is in five brisk acts) the conceit is great fun. Henry Higgins (played energetically and with considerable wit by Patrick McManus) hovers around Covent Garden in jeans and a t-shirt with a tape recorder or leans on his bike. Clara Eynsford Hill (Kristi Frank), disaffected and entitled, texts blankly while she and her mother (Julain Molnar) wait for their hapless, puppy-eyed brother Freddy (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) to find them a cab in a rainstorm; around them is a collection of raucous street folk including a busker with a guitar, a hooker in cut-offs and a young, wheelchair-bound homeless man. Higgins’ study (act two) is full of TV monitors; Eliza (Harveen Sandhu) catches her reflection in one of them and shrieks in surprise. The study is set up to allow Higgins – and Colonel Pickering (Jeff Meadows), the fellow linguist who moves in with him – opportunities for both research and leisure: a dart board upstage right offers a touch of local-pub atmosphere. When Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle (Peter Krantz) appears in the middle of the second act, he wears a neon orange sanitation uniform and an earring, and he has to struggle to pull himself up out of Higgins’ beanbag chair.

Harveen Sandhu and Patrick McManus. (Photo: David Cooper)
But when Doolittle threatens his daughter physically, he turns sinister, and we’re suddenly out of the realm of Shaw’s wonderful comedy of manners. The choice seems markedly ill-advised, since we’re supposed to like Doolittle, but given the updated setting, what else is Hinton going to do with this scene? At that point we start to work out all the ways in which a twenty-first-century reimagining of Pygmalion just doesn’t scan. Hinton’s idea is to explore the range of classes in contemporary English society; an excerpt from a BBC documentary that cleverly covers the scene shift from act one to act two suggests that whereas England used to have three classes, it now has seven. That’s a promising scheme, but the problem is that Shaw’s play is about the interplay of class and language, and language simply doesn’t function in the same way today as it did when Shaw wrote it on the brink of the First World War. Accents may still denote origin and even education, but they haven’t been a deterrent to social mobility for many decades now, and God knows that vulgarity is no longer a sign of poor breeding. Instead of saying “bloody” when Higgins brings Eliza for tea at the home of his mother (Donna Belleville), Eliza says “fucking,” which makes more sense. What doesn’t is that anyone would be shocked by that epithet – especially Pickering, who in this version is a military man just returned from Afghanistan. We can just barely buy Pickering’s moral discomfort with Doolittle’s cohabiting with a partner he hasn’t married, since Meadows plays him as distinctly old-school, but in 2015, when there are women in the military, he wouldn’t be likely to object to one who curses. In the same vein, Higgins’s housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Mary Haney), who lectures him on his language because she thinks he’s setting a bad example for Eliza, belongs unmistakably to the world that Hinton’s production wants to move beyond.

In this rendition Mrs. Higgins is a dress designer; the program indicates that the third and fifth acts take place in her “showroom and maisonette” in Chelsea. That means that she lives in her showroom, which allows Hinton to parade models up and down but seems rather odd. Christina Poddubiuk has a good time with the contemporary London outfits but her efforts to make Mrs. Higgins a hip Bohemian by giving her cropped gray hair and a t-shirt undermine her performance; she looks so silly that you can’t take her seriously, though if anyone is the voice of wisdom in this play it’s certainly Mrs. Higgins. Pickering’s dead arm presents a similar block to Meadows’s performance, though in the opposite way: it’s hard to get past the grim reality it signifies. Tonally it’s as out of place as the glimpse we get of Doolittle as a batterer. On the other hand, Poddubiuk’s costumes should help Peter Krantz, but he just chews the scenery as usual.

The best thing about the production is Harveen Sandhu, who’s especially fine in the second half (acts four and five), after Eliza has settled into aristocratic elegance and grace. (I’m not sure who could have taught her to behave like a moneyed ditz at Mrs. Higgins’ in act three; Higgins would hardly have tutored her in that particular set of mannerisms.) Hinton can’t seem to decide whether or not the relationship between Eliza and Higgins has an erotic component; there are hints of it in act five, but they come out of nowhere. He barely notices she’s a woman at all in the previous act, though the first stage image following the intermission is of Sandhu in her exquisite ball gown, balancing a book on her head as she enters the study in the semi-darkness, and she’s a vision. It’s easy to imagine this actress in a variety of high-comic and romantic-comic ingénue roles; I hope the Shaw will build on the triumph she’s having with the first leading role I’ve seen her play.

The cast of You Never Can Tell at Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

You Never Can Tell, which Shaw wrote in 1897, isn’t one of his best comedies; it’s thin and rather mechanical. When I reviewed a local production for the Boston Phoenix more than twenty years ago, I noted that Valentine, the protagonist, a young dentist in a seaside resort, is a pale blueprint for Adolphus Cusins in Major Barbara; that the way in which Shaw satirizes romantic conventions in the playing out of his courtship of Gloria Clandon, one of Shaw’s incarnations of the independent-minded “New Woman,” pales next to what he does in Arms and the Man; and that the device of the respectable man – Gloria’s estranged father, Fergus Crampton – having the stuffing taken out of him is a great deal funnier (and more affecting) in Heartbreak House. Seeing the play again at the Shaw, directed by Jim Mezon, didn’t change my mind about it, especially about Gloria’s obstreperous adolescent siblings, Dolly and Philip, who may be the most irritating characters the playwright ever invented. (The amateurish performances by Jennifer Dzialoszynski and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff don’t help.) But Gray Powell brings a waggish charm to the role of Valentine, Peter Millard is supernally relaxed as the hotel waiter, William, and Leslie Frankish’s sets and costumes are delightfully whimsical.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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