Let me start off my saying that I love the movie musical “My Fair Lady.” I used to watch as a kid and practice mimicking all the British accents and dialects (yes I was a budding theater nerd). I’ve always known the musical was based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, but had never read or seen it until now. Unlike my other BITR sisters, I’m not as well read when it comes to plays, especially the classics. I’m a theater hobbyist. I am not a professional. Repeat I am not a professional. You’ve been warned. In case you aren’t familiar with My Fair Lady, let me break down Pygmalion for you: The middle class family with matriarch Mrs. Eynsford Hill (Melissa McGinley), son Freddy Eynsford Hill (Carlo Olivi) and daughter Clara Eynsford Hill (Caelyn Sommerville) are trying to catch a cab on a cold wet afternoon in London when they bump into street vendor Eliza Dolittle (Linae’ C. Bullock) peddling flowers. A linguistic professor Henry Higgins (Phil Gallagher) who randomly bumps into a colleague Colonel Pickering (Randy Dalmas) overhears Ms. Dolittle’s voice and jokingly proclaims that he could make people believe she is a Duchess with just six months of lessons. Eliza overhears and agrees to take lessons from Mr. Higgins with the help of Colonel Pickering, Mr. Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Jenifer Grundy Hollett) and Henry’s mother Mrs. Higgins (Hillary Mazer) in order to become a lady, and work in a flower shop. Eliza’s father, Alfred Dolittle (Rich Espey) pops in to give his blessing to Professor Higgins and a back of the envelope lecture on “middle class morality.” Actors Sarah Weissman and Don Lampasone fill out the cast with a variety of supporting characters.
The show opened with the sound of rainfall during pre-show which set the mood of a dark, wet, gloomy London street. Nice touch. I want to give a special shout out to Don Lampasone for stepping in a few days before opening night to play several supporting characters. This shows how much this community supports each other. He answered the call when an actor fell ill and even though he had to read his lines on stage, he did it in character and was a total badass! Linae’ Bullock played Eliza Dolittle with a sense of wonder and force. She had a light about her and was a breath of fresh air on the stage. Her presence was missed when she wasn’t there and her emotional range was delightful to watch unfold during the play. Henry Higgins was overtly brutish and pompous towards Eliza and actor Phil Gallagher played him with gravitas. I enjoy actors who take up space on stage with their characters and Mr. Gallagher did just that. His gruff demeanor made it easy to love and hate him. The initial adversarial push and pull between characters Henry and Eliza was present, but I never really felt their connection. They seemed to be moving past each other and chemistry never materialized. Colonel Pickering (Randy Dalmas), acted as the steadfast and gentlemanly counterpart to Henry Higgins. Mr. Dalmas played him with sweetness and poise that resonated throughout the play. Among the ensemble, Alfred Dolittle (Rich Espey) was the most animated and engaging character. Rich Esprey’s characterizations were filled with energy and movement and Dolittle was instantly likeable. I especially enjoyed his monologues on “Middle class morality.”
Technical elements were fine tuned to support the action. Costumes by designer Jenifer Grundy Hollett were 19th century period without beating you over the head with it. They were layered and specific to each character’s class. Tweeds, sweaters, overcoats, lovely dresses and suits with tails fit the actors and their individual characters well. Choreographer Melissa McGinley choreographed a gorgeous dance number during the garden party of Eliza’s debut. Key elements of this production were the British accents. A show about linguistics better have its shit together. And it did! I was so happy to hear a variety of accents which were expertly executed thanks to Assistant Director, Dialect Coach and Mr. Henry Higgins himself Phil Gallagher. Set designer/Scenic artist Sherrionne Brown created a world with simple seat cushions and well placed props to change locations. Every space was decorated, even spaces that weren’t used. Ms. Brown made great use of the Spotlighters’ famous four columned space. I saw a phonograph in a decorated nook of the theater which I wish was used in the action. A lovely mural on the back wall of a lone horse carriage set the mood. I see you Spots! Lighting designer Brad Ranno kept everything soft, colorful, and well lit. The lighting during the scenes of Eliza’s studies to become a lady was my favorite. Soft spots on each of the columns highlighted each elocution lesson as well as showed a passage of time. The lighting punctuated the emotion and transported the audience to a street, a garden party or a bachelor pad. Damn bloody lighting doing what it’s supposed to do!
Overall direction was nuanced, yet restrained. Sherrionne Brown (Baltimore theater folks serve so many roles!) played well with the dynamic between characters Eliza and Henry, especially at the height of emotion. Hands down this production was extremely well cast. The principle and supporting actors were all very good. The characters were ripe and fully formed. However, my main critique with this production was the emotional pacing. There was a lot of dead space in the action which made the production seem longer. The many transitions between scenes were also long (maybe due to the freshman run crew hired a few days before opening?) and the action stagnated a few times on stage. The emotional connections between Eliza and the other characters were present in parts. As a whole the production had heart, but not a lot of soul. All the elements of a great show were there: awesome technical elements, excellent acting, good direction, yet somehow something was missing. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Maybe I hoped to feel more of Eliza’s pain and confusion of her new station in life. Or maybe I didn’t feel invested in the characters. Whatever was blocking me, I found myself paying more attention to Shaw’s use of language and the themes of the play than the action happening on the stage. Overall the right layers were there in the production, I just wish the direction could have turned up the volume a hair.
As a Shavian newbie, I enjoyed the language of Shaw and his attempts at lady power in the early 19th century; however, my biggest problem with the text was everyone was always worrying about the girl. “What is to be done with her afterwards?” “Do what’s right by the girl.” But no one ever did anything, suggested anything, or even asked Eliza. It was all too polite, too British. No one helped her figure out who she would be. Just become someone’s wife! Thanks I guess. That’s not what Eliza wanted. She wanted to work in a flower shop and be her own woman. That aim was lost somehow. The idea that a woman has to be owned by someone and can’t have her own agency isn’t a new concept. Women are just things without feelings. Someone has to own them and take care of them. They have to be controlled, policed, protected and told what to do with their minds and bodies. They can’t be trusted to be their own person. I guess not much has changed since Victorian times. What is to become of Eliza? Was she taught how to get a job? How to navigate this new middle class world? One could argue that Eliza was more independent and in control of her life as a street merchant. She was happy, but a man decided he could make her better. He saw a dirty vessel that he could take home, clean up, and stick some flowers in. The line that resonated with me was when Eliza said to Henry “why did you take my independence away from me? Why did I give it up?” Good question girl! I can see how this play was meant to be a feminist battle cry, but I’m not completely sold. The emphasis placed on being a good girl also had echoes into today. Sometimes it takes a while to come into your own as a woman. And to do that, you have to be a little nasty. Not everyone likes a nasty woman, but damn is she necessary to get shit done. Lastly, using how we speak as a commentary on how to be upwardly mobile was striking. Give her better linguistic pipes and off you go! Jolly good! Changing someone’s class is much more complicated than changing their pattern of speech. Eliza had more options than before, but as mentioned earlier, she didn’t have a well-thought out support system to fully realize those options. This linguistic switch up brought to mind the idea of “code switching” in the African-American community. It’s the practice of speaking one way at home and with friends and another more refined way in professional circles especially around White people in order to keep up appearances and to fit in. It was not lost on me as a Black woman that Eliza was played by a woman of color in this production. I don’t have time to unpack all of what I want to say, but there is a discussion to be had about “White saviors” and trying to fit into a culture that doesn’t quite accept you. This play had layers ya’ll! Oh well, welcome to the curse of “Middle class morality” Eliza. Where we live for others and not for ourselves. Tip the waitress and try the veal.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? I always say support the classics. They are a fundamental to everyone’s theater education. And Spotlighters’ production of Pygmalion does not disappoint. Pygmalion has a superb cast with subtle technical elements which makes for a splendid night at the theater. The scene transitions will tighten over time and the actors will continue to mature their connections with each other. The show will find its rhythm and soul. Overall the production was a good representation of small theater in Baltimore: bold and entertaining. Go see this play if you like My Fair Lady, but remember that this play is not sing-a-long musical theater. It’s slightly darker and grittier. It would be embarrassing if you started singing, “warm face, warm hands, warm feet…” or “I’ve grown accustomed to her face.” Don’t do that. Pygmalion is an appropriate addition to Spotlighters’ season of “Strong Voices.” Go see Pygmalion to appreciate the language of Shaw, the commentary of a woman’s place in society, and the relationship of the social classes. Live up that middle class life and buy a bloody ticket already! (Z)
Now through March 10th. Running time: 2 hours and 45 mins with a 15 minute intermission.