Muddled Myths and Patriarchy: PYGMALION at the Long Beach Playhouse

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Tiffany Toner (Eliza Doolittle). Photos courtesy of the Long Beach Playhouse.

By now there have been so many incarnations of Pygmalion that it is nearly impossible to see it without all of its adaptations influencing your vision like tinted glasses with which you view it through. George Bernard Shaw’s classic play was first performed in 1913 and was initially inspired by Greek mythology. In the original myth, the sculptor, Pygmalion, creates a statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. After secretly wishing for a lover just like his creation at the temple of Aphrodite, Pygmalion’s statue magically comes to life at his touch and his secret wish is granted.

Shaw’s update sets the story in the London of the early 20th century. In his version, phonetics professor Henry Higgins bets his colleague (Colonel Pickering), that in six months he can pass a poor, cockney speaking flower girl (Eliza Doolittle) off as a duchess by teaching her to speak “proper English.”

The play itself has seen various interpretations and edits, a classic film version which shaped a more romantic relationship between Higgins and Doolittle and of course, the famous 1950s musical and 1960s film My Fair Lady, which further exploited the romantic territory hinted at by Pygmalion‘s film adaptation.

With all of these suits piled up on top of Shaw’s original play it is refreshing to see the anti-romantic and pointedly feminist class-study Pygmalion at its unadorned core. Seeing a spirited revival of the original text could still prove to be a shocking or revelatory experience to contemporary audiences, but with the largely miscast and sloppily staged revival running now at the Long Beach Playhouse, audiences are likely to leave scratching their heads rather than feeling awoken.

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Steven Biggs (Colonel Pickering) Wilhelm Peters (Henry Higgins).

The first big issue is not one of content but of staging. The Mainstage’s space at The Playhouse is a thrust stage. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a thrust is sort of like a runway with the audience seated on three of its sides and room for a mounted set only against the upstage wall. Under Sarah Butt’s direction, she places the play’s two main settings onstage from the get-go, with Higgen’s study upstage and his mother’s parlor downstage. This may not sound like much of an issue on paper and unquestionably saves time during scene changes but it means that each half of the play takes place far away from half of its audience. It also leaves them gazing through the unused setting nearest to them during half of the play’s scenes, an outcome that feels either sloppy or lazy.

These staging issues could be subdued if it wasn’t for the far larger problem at foot: The undermining of Eliza’s true dilemma. As the play nears its conclusion, Eliza realizes that in spite of all that she has learned from Professor Higgins, without a husband or a considerable source of income, she is possibly worse off now than she was before her education began.

As Eliza says to herself near the end of Act Five, “Oh! if I only COULD go back to my flower basket! I should be independent of both you and father and all the world! Why did you take my independence from me? Why did I give it up? I’m a slave now, for all my fine clothes.” Previously, in Act Four, she also notes “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else. I wish you’d left me where you found me.”

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Tiffany Toner (Eliza Doolittle) Austin Springer (Freddy Eynsford-Hill).

The director’s note and the production itself seem to place more value on emphasizing that Eliza now has the knowledge necessary to be a lady than on the fact that she may very well may have been better off when she was ignorant of how to behave like one. Higgin’s inability to see this conflict and Eliza’s slow path to realizing it are the true arc of the plot.

That Higgin’s chooses to remain ignorant and Eliza leaves him to progress as a women, even though she likely has to subvert herself to be successful, are where the late dramatic conflict of the play comes from. When placed in the proper hands, Shaw’s original play could be quite shocking to the masses far more familiar with the later, more romantic adaptations. Here however, the ending feels unfinished rather than triumphant. A question mark where there should be a period.

There are misguided emphases all around, but none are as detrimental as the way in which Higgins and Eliza are played.

Wilhelm Peters (Higgins) and Tiffany Toner (Eliza) are both seemingly lost in their roles throughout the course of the production. Peter’s Higgins is neurotic and obnoxious to the point of disbelieving that anyone would be attracted to him or tolerate his antics. While I admire the choice to make him a less charming and more delusional character than he is often portrayed, his stagnant lack of development through the play should be revealed to the audience gradually, as it does to Eliza, letting us realize only by the play’s ending that he is delusional and trapped within his selfishness. Here, we sniff it out right off the bat and can not even begin to imagine why Eliza waits as long as she does to throw his slippers at him.

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Steven Biggs (Colonel Pickering) Susie McCarthy (Mrs. Higgins) and Wilhelm Peters (Henry Higgins).

On the flip side, Eliza becomes a “lady” not when she successfully is passed off as one but when she discovers that in order to be happy, she needs to be independent and treated decently. Her physical transformations (those of her grooming and speech) are the most obvious and therefore, the most entertaining, but it is the intellectual maturing that results from her education that is the most dramatic to observe. Miss Toner’s performance unfortunately misses this important path and relies too much on the physical transformations than on those of the heart and mind.

Pygmalion is not an ensemble piece and the success of a production in many ways lies on the shoulders of its leads, so even though the supporting rolls here are more successful than the leading ones, it’s not enough to carry the production. That said, Mitchell Nunn gives a spirited comedic turn as Eliza’s father, if not one that is particularly nuanced. Steven Biggs on the other hand gives a subtle charming performance as Colonel Pickering, though with Higgins behaving like he does, it’s confusing as to why he sticks around. Surprisingly, the most grounded, consistent and believable performance comes from Susie McCarthy as Mrs. Higgins (Henry’s mother). McCarthy’s timing and tone are perfect for the roll and her sensitivity is enough to create a real person from a roll that could easily be performed as a mere archetype.

The set (Greg Fritsche) and lighting (Martha Carter) are attractive, as they usually are at The Mainstage, even if they are sometimes rendered impotent due to the way the production is staged. The costumes by Donna Fritsche however, especially for the women, are often quite lovely.

In this day and age, it feels irresponsible to stage the original version of Pygmalion without highlighting its inherent feminist bent. This essential element of the material has been dumbed down by every one of its future iterations, leaving Shaw’s original intent in the background as though it was mere window dressing. Shaw wrote with social and political purpose and in order to show off the contemporary relevance of his work one must highlight that purpose with a crystal clear, heightened focus.

As we round the corner into election season and are asked to evaluate what the key issues are that still effect our society, I leave you with this question: What good is education if with it you are still victim to a broken and socially unequal system?

Pygmalion runs through March 26th at the Long Beach Playhouse, which is located at 5021 East Anaheim Street. 

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