‘Pygmalion’ triumphs in BoHo, Stage Left collaboration
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org January 14, 2013 3:36PM
Steve O’Connell stars as Henry Higgins and Mouzam Makkar stars as Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion," a Stage Left Theatre/BoHo Theatre collaboration. | Photo by Johnny Knight.
When: Through Feb. 10
Where: Stage Left and BoHo Theatre Ensemble at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Info: (773) 975-8150; www.BoHo Theatre.com or www.StageLeftTheatre.com
Running Time: 2:15 with one intermission
Updated: January 16, 2013 9:06PM
This year marks the 100th anniversary of George Bernard Shaw’s most beloved play, “Pygmalion,” which, surprisingly, had its 1913 world premiere in Vienna (in a German translation), and only opened the following year in London (in English, the language to which it is so crucially wed).
To celebrate the anniversary, and to rectify the fact that the play (as opposed to its sublime musical version, “My Fair Lady”) is rarely revived, two local companies — Stage Left Theatre and BoHo Theatre — have joined resources to create a sharply acted, visually elegant version of this classic play that bristles with ideas about class, morality, money, manners, language and the relations between men and women. Along the way, this production — impeccably cast, and directed with speed and intensity by Vance Smith — is a fine reminder that Shaw was, in his very particular way, one of the great philosophers of feminism.
The story of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl who is taught to speak “the King’s English” by Professor Henry Higgins, that confirmed bachelor and master of the science of phonetics, is familiar enough. But simply by selecting the stunningly beautiful and talented Indian-born actress, Mouzam Makkar, to play Eliza, Smith has subtly suggested fresh meaning for the play — hinting at the many immigrants from throughout the Empire who eventually settled in and remade England, into the cosmopolitan, multi-culti society captured by such contemporary novelists as Zadie Smith. Makkar also happens to be wonderful in the role — fiery, proud, whip-smart and compellingly watchable. And this is only the latest of many recent performances in which she has demonstrated her star quality.
Steve O’Connell is the perfect Higgins for her — tall, pale, very much the overgrown mama’s boy. And he deftly suggests a man who is brilliant in his profession but clueless about most of the rest of life, and infused with an abiding terror of women and bourgeois marriage.
Smith’s choice of Lisa Herceg to play Higgins’ no-nonsense mother — and the one woman who can control and him — is another shrewd piece of casting. Herceg is perfection as the no-nonsense woman well aware of her son’s boorishness. She also makes you understand why Henry is both intimidated by women, but also admiring of those with his mother’s independence and frankness.
But that eye for just the right actor goes right down the line. Mark Pracht mines every ounce of the comedy and self-awareness in Eliza’s dad, Alfred Doolittle, the working-class sponger and innate philosopher reluctantly transformed into a middle-class man. Stephanie Sullivan is the model of Edwardian rectitude as Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, bringing a wonderful touch of impertinence and outspokenness to the woman. And Sandy Elias is sweetly grandfatherly as the gentlemanly Colonel Pickering.
The characterizations of the financially strapped but upper middle-class Eynsford-Hills is similarly spot-on, with Laura Sturm as the proper mother, Charles Riffenburg as Freddie, the hapless lad completely besotted by Eliza, and Rebecca Mauldin as his sister, exceptional in the way she suggests her own sudden desire to break free and gain Higgins’ attention.
Special applause, too, for the show’s designers — Eleanor Kahn, whose sets (lit by Jessica Harpenau), are at once mobile and rich in architectural heft, and Theresa Ham, whose grand costumes are particularly memorable when worn by Makkar.