Pygmalion, by Flat Earth Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts
Pygmalion, written by George
Bernard Shaw and adapted by Devon Jones. Directed by Devon Jones. Presented by
Flat Earth Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through
Under His Majesty’s Recovery (“an ongoing aesthetic,
artistic, governmental, military, and above all, moral project
unsurpassed in the Western world; the return to a proudly imperial tradition is
not merely a matter of taste but one of lifestyle”) London is controlled
by a totalitarian police state. This is the context for Flat Earth Theatre’s
production of Pygmalion, which, like the subway stations that comprise the set
for the play, is 100 years old. The period costumes of Edwardian times, worn by
the elite, are in direct contrast with the modern day clothing of the less
Henry Higgins is a linguist who has a run-in with Eliza Doolittle,
a scrappy, lower-class seller of flowers.
After verbally sparring with her, Higgins makes a bet with Colonel
Pickering, an admired expert in Indian dialects, that in six months’ time, he
can convert her, with elocution lessons and comport, into a respectable member
of the elite class. He does, but not
without exposing himself as a misogynistic, ill-mannered man. Like most social experiments conducted by
well-meaning and moneyed people, he has not given Eliza’s welfare any
consideration beyond the six months that she has in his household.
Allison Olivia Choat’s set design is simple and beautiful,
consisting of a Tube map and several benches.
It is odd to see members of the upper class in the Underground (in
present-day London, members of the upper class have drivers, not Oyster Cards).
The interesting thing about the clash between lower and upper classes is that
in the end, they are not so different – it is the middle class who have
manners. As Eliza Doolittle’s father Alfred (wonderfully played by Stephen
Turner) says after a windfall, “I have to live for others instead of
myself. That’s middle class morality.”
As a lower-class scoundrel, he had no problems scamming people for
money; now he feels responsible for others, unlike Henry Higgins.
Eliza is played by Jaclyn Johnson, who is outstanding in
the role. Her transformation from street urchin to faux Duchess is marvelous;
she is persuasive as both. She has a vulnerability that makes us care about
her, and as the play’s protagonist, it’s extremely effective. As Henry Higgins, Chris Ciampa is
alternately rational, uptight, and ultimately, despicable. Tom Beyer lends a nice dignity to Colonel
Pickering. J. Deschene is convincing as both a homeless person and Mrs.
Eynsford-Hill, lending a sonorous voice to the latter. The accents in the piece
were consistent throughout and quite good.
I suppose I am a purist –
while the adaptation explains why the action takes place in the Underground and
how a person like Henry Higgins can exist, there is nothing in the script that
suggests this. In the end, it is more of a distraction than an illumination. Still, given the pure creativity that Flat
Earth put into the revision, I’d say they’re a company to watch. For more info,
go to: https://flatearththeatre.com/shows/2014/pygmalion/
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