An Exemplary Pygmalion
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, which has provided audiences with a series of commendable productions throughout the summer, has outdone itself with an exceptionally splendid presentation of George Bernard Shaw’s scintillating “romance” Pygmalion to open its fall season.
Labeled a “romance” by Shaw, a designation which he may well have come to rue, Pygmalion is a stylish, perceptive, wry and witty comedy of manners with just the right amount of heart.
Few will be able to approach this Shaw classic without mentally noting that it is the basis for the spectacularly successful musical, My Fair Lady. However, it would be a major mistake to think that if you have seen the latter, it would be redundant to see Pygmalion. Each work has brilliant virtues all its own.
Shaw drew his inspiration from the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which tells of sculptor and King of Cyprus Pygmalion who fell in love with his own statue of Aphrodite. Aphrodite brought life to the statue in the form of Galatea.
One of the joys of this play is that it enables viewers to draw upon their own feelings and analyses to decide the course of the relationship between Henry Higgins and his Galatea, Eliza Doolittle, after the fall of the final curtain. The breadth of Shaw’s writing is such that it provides a great deal of leeway for actors and director to interpret the roles of Higgins and Eliza in ways which are emotionally and intellectually valid to them.
Therefore, while there can never be definitive interpretations of these roles, it is necessary that they be played with great nuance and humanity (as well as comedic dexterity and timing) for any production of Pygmalion to fully succeed.
Alongside her every step of the way is her Henry Higgins, Paul Niebanck. Though appearing slightly more youthful than Shaw intended, Niebanck is a totally convincing Henry Higgins. He manages to convey Higgins’ smug and overbearing personality while remaining likeable. As Higgins' limitations and vulnerabilities emerge, Niebanck allows us to see them while maintaining the façade which he has erected for himself.
Both Ms. Mack and Niebanck convey all of Shaw’s character-based humor without overplaying or descending into caricature. Niebanck draws the evening’s biggest laugh with his response to the announcement of the arrival of Freddy just after being introduced to Freddy’s mother and sister.
In My Fair Lady, although the final confrontation between Higgins and Eliza has been altered and subjected to major cuts, most of the balance of Shaw’s brilliant dialogue involving them has survived miraculously intact. Additionally, drawing largely on references in the Shaw play, Moss Hart and Alan Jay Lerner with the support of Fritz Loewe’s magnificent music, have given their musical a smooth flow and expansiveness which are to be treasured.
Of necessity, the musical foreshortens the roles of several of the supporting characters, eliminating much of their dimension and humor in the process. However, in this production of the play, in grand ensemble style, we are presented with a gallery of richly amusing and often moving individuals from differing social classes. Each is amazingly well drawn by Shaw, and the performances evoke the richness in the writing.
Elizabeth Shepherd is a wise and winning Mrs. Higgins (Henry’s mother). Richly amusing are Mary Dierson and Mandy Olsen as impoverished socialite mother and daughter. Jim Mohr as Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, is fully amusing without ruffling the ensemble tone. Similarly praiseworthy are Joseph Costa as Colonel Pickering, Peggy Scott as Mrs. Pearce, and Steve Wilson as the Eliza smitten Freddy.
The costumes by Karen A. Ledger are attractive and suitable. Scenic design by Charles T. Wittreich, Jr. is serviceable. Wittreich and Director Bonnie J. Monte probably should share the blame for the awkward scene transitions. In every other way, Monte is at the top of her form here. When the entire cast nails a classic play as this one has, it is clear that the director had a clear and effective vision and was able to put that vision on stage.
Will Henry Higgins and his fair Eliza get married? Or will they be fellow bachelors? Or will Eliza hitch up with nice, but lightweight Freddy? Or will Eliza go off .... Well, Bernard Shaw did provide some pretty strong answers in an epilogue-essay, published about three years after Pygmalion was first produced. However, he may be wrong. Just maybe, his essay was just a misguided reaction to public perceptions about the play which rubbed him the wrong way. However, before checking out his epilogue, you had best get over to the Shakespeare Theatre in Madison and, with the help of Bonnie J. Monte and her exceptional cast, decide for yourself. For very good measure, you will almost surely have a delightful time.
Pygmalion runs through September 28 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road (on the campus of Drew University) Madison, N.J. Box Office: 973-408-5600; on the web: www.shakespearenj.org.
Pygmalion, a romance by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Bonnie J.