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A CurtainUp Review

The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated.— Eliza
Eric Tucker and Vaishnavi Sharma
George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play was his first big hit. The 1938 movie is still a favorite with golden oldie viewers. Nowadays, the story of the flower girl turned into a lady by Henry Higgins, the boorish phonetician is most often associated with Lerner & Lowe's delightful staged and filmed musical, My Fair Lady.

And yet, the non-musical version has had its share of revivals so that it isn't one that companies like the Mint are likely to pull out of the dustbin of forgotten plays. My Fair Lady may be one of the best ever musical adaptations of a play, but Shaw's witty dialogue for the now more than 100-year-old Pygmalion still has the power to make its own music with its sparkling dialogue and multi-faceted characters. And, with the #MeToo movement in full force, the time is certainly ripe for a new production of Shaw's long ago send-up of prevailing views of women's roles and the social system.

The good news for New York theatergoers is that they can see new productions of both My Fair Lady and Pygmalion. My take on the musical at Lincoln Center will have to wait for its official opening. But I can tell you right now that the Bedlam Company's Pygmalion at the Sheen Center is fresher than those flowers Eliza Doolittle is selling during her first meet-up with linguist Henry Higgins.

I love the 1938 golden oldie film version with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. I've enjoyed more traditionally cast and staged versions, like the last Broadway revival by the Roundabout Company and another at Williamstown , but the Bedlam's very unique vision makes a trip to the beautiful Sheen Center imperative for anyone who appreciates an audacious yet respectful adaptation of a classic.

Given the many formats that have famiiarized most of us with Shaw's plot (itself an adaptation of the mythical Greek sculptor Pygmalion who created a perfect female out of unpromising raw material and fell in love with her), the Bedlam Company's as always inventive approach is delightfully cheeky, without running the risk of turning Shaw's themes into high camp.

Just in case you never saw any version of this star among Shaw's discussion plays, here's a triple-tweet sized synopsis: On a rainy night in Covent Gardens, Higgins, a brilliant phonetics professor is taking notes on the dialects all around him. He also meets up with Colonel Pickering, a fellow linguist and brags that he can teach a Cockney flower girl who's hawking her wares to speak proper English. What follows is that Pickering and Eliza, the flower girl, move in with Higgins as he proceed to make good on a bet that he can teach Eliza to speak English well enough to pass as a duchess in six months. He does indeed do so, but the transformation doesn't stop there. Higgins too has something to learn —which is as Eliza puts it is that "the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated." How it all ends for Eliza and the Professor also involves her father, his mother, and the aristocratic but poor Freddy Eynsford-Hill —and expands Shaw's belief in a society fairer to poor people and women.

Though the not-for-profit Bedlam Company has no home of its own, it has always presented its reappraisals of novels and plays in venues that suit the mission of putting the audience up close to the story being told, and relying on resourceful staging rather than big budget staging. For Pygmalion, the Sheen Center's Black Box immerses the audience completely even before they take their seats in one of the three sections surrounding the modestly sized playing area.

Shortly after the audience is ushered into the spacious lobby outside the theater, members of the cast enter and perform the play's opening street scene. They wander among the people standing around, giving them a sense of also being on that Covent Garden street waiting for the rain to stop.

With just a few rows of seats in each section, and the two aisles extensively and effectively used throughout, you coninue to be up close and immersed in the show even after you take your seat. Scenic designer John McDermott, a Bedlam regular, has furnished the small playing area just enough to function realistically as Higgins's Wimpole Street home and laboratory (a Persian carpet, a desk and some chairs). The stairs leading up from the basement level theater are used to indicate the residence's bedrooms, and the top of the much used aisles also contain a few props.

In typical Bedlam fashion, several of the cast's six actors double up in gender-crossing roles. The most frequently seen cross-gender role is that of the Professor's mother Mrs. Higgins (Edmund Lewis, who also has two cameos as Freddy Eynsford-Hill). While this imposing lady is obviously a man, Lewis's performance never smacks of caricature.

Of course, the actors playing the flower girl and the boorish Professor, are crucial to the success of any Pygmalion. Vashnavi Sharma and Eric Tucker not only tap into the evolving emotions of each, but also have terrific chemistry, especially in their final confrontation. While both play just one role, Tucker does do triple duty as actor, director and sound designer.

Rajesh Bose is another outstanding pivotal cast member. His Alfred Doolittle is not only hilarious but also voices Shaw's opinions about class in two long, flawlessly delivered monologues. The nod to diversity in the casting of both Doolittles is actually embedded in the original text in which Alfred Doolittle says he was born in Calcutta and Higgins tells Eliza to stop her "Indian ways." (It's that text, which is available free at ProjectGutenbeg-, that's used for this adaptation.

With the help of costume designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane, Eliza morphs from ragamuffin to elegant lady. Costumer Palmer-Lane enables Nigel Gore's excellent Colonel Pickering to several times turn into Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, and Annabel Capper to transform herself from Higgins' housekeeper Mrs. Pearce to his mother's parlor maid.

True to Shaw's original intent, the script ends ambiguously, with a different take than the musical on that famous "where are my slippers" ending. Still, the electric feeling in the scene when Henry's emotions boil over into near violence does make one wonder if Shaw wasn't wrong about what he saw happening afterwards.

If you're a Shaw purist, you may not immediately take to this production. But I'll bet my own slippers that you'll end up enjoying it.

For more about George Bernard Shaw and links to his plays reviewed at Curtainup, check out the Shaw chapter of our Playwrights Album.

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Pygmalian, The Bedlam company adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play
Directed by Eric Tucker
Cast: Vaishnavi Sharma (Eliza Doolittle), Eric Tucker (Henry Higgins), Rajesh Bose (Alfred Doolittle, Annabel Capper (Mrs. Piercd, Clara Eysnsford Hill, Parlor Maid), Nigel Gore (Colonel Pickering, Mrs Eynsford Hill), Edmund Lewis (Mrs. Higgins, Freddy Eynsford Hill).
Scenic Designer: John McDermott
Lighting Designer: Les Dickert
Costume Designer: Charlotte Palmer-Lane
Sound Designer: Eric Tucker
Stage Manager: Diane Healy
Running Time: Approx 2 hours without an intermission
Bedlam at the Sheen Center 18 Bleeker Street
From 3/16/18; opening 3/27/18; closing 4/22/18
Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 8pm, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.

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