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Pygmalion

Shaw's comedy may still be politically charged, but Different Stages' production shows it's also satisfying entertainment

Reviewed by Stacy Alexander Smith, Fri., July 11, 2014

The makings of a wager: Col. Pickering (Craig Kanne), Eliza Doolittle (Amy Lewis), and Henry Higgins (Tom Chamberlain)
The makings of a wager: Col. Pickering (Craig Kanne), Eliza Doolittle (Amy Lewis), and Henry Higgins (Tom Chamberlain)
Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire

Pygmalion

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
www.main.org/diffstages
Through July 16
Running time: 2 hr., 45 min.

George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion was, of course, the basis for My Fair Lady. Typified by less romance and more fire than its musical adaptation, it will test the patience of modern audiences who are sensitive to the notion of women being bullied and exploited by men. Indeed, the recent Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby proves this struggle is far from over.

Although the Irishman Shaw is perhaps an unlikely figure to be branded a feminist, the fact is that he was adamant that this play's two main characters, the linguist Henry Higgins and his protégé Eliza, not be linked romantically. In contrast to the source material – the mythical tale of the King of Cyprus, a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – Shaw wanted Henry and Eliza's relationship to remain platonic.

With that in mind, this interpretation by Different Stages provides surprising evidence that a politically charged and maddeningly apposite show can double as entertainment that is simply satisfying. On the whole, the actors' accents are believable enough that my neighbor in the audience – himself an expat from the UK who was educated at Oxford, no less – gave the players a thumbs-up. Although I was put off by the middle-school cafeteria aesthetic of the opening scenery, before long a simplistic Covent Garden quickly morphed into the much more sophisticated setting of Higgins' Wimpole Street laboratory. From feathered hats and sparkling headpieces on the ladies to herringbone tweed on the gents, costuming is pleasantly grounded in the early 20th century.

As Higgins, Tom Chamberlain manages to walk the tightrope between affectionate teacher and utter cad – and it's a good thing, as this delicate balance is essential to keeping our loathing of him at bay. Eliza Doolittle is a peach role, as it involves a considerable transformation that pushes the outer limits of type and character for the performer. In Act IV, when Eliza was hunched over in her ball gown, her face twisted by base emotion, I wasn't quite convinced that she could pass herself off as a "lady" at the opera, as the script implies. Yet these same affectations are what make Amy Lewis sheer perfection as the cockney flower-seller.

Andy Brown gives a fine turn as Eliza's unapologetically soused papa, Alfred. Whether negotiating an awkwardly skimpy dowry for his daughter or lamenting the burden of middle-class morality, it's true: This character delivers some of the play's best one-liners.

Flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that businesses must specialize, the Vortex (with its Butterfly Bar) remains among my favorite venues as a one-stop shop for art, martinis, and food-truck finery under leafy cover. Pygmalion is further confirmation that the show business component hasn't been shortchanged by the close proximity of a full bar and hang space. As in Higgins' drawing room, the bills sometimes lie with the billet-doux.

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