Michigan Shakespeare Festival: A ‘Pygmalion’ Masterpiece
By Bridgette M. Redman, EncoreMichigan.com
The sculptor Pygmalion, upon whom George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name is based, created for himself the perfect woman out of ivory. Despising the company of all other women, his love was a barren one until Venus granted the statue a soul and Pygmalion’s kiss brought her to life.
In Shaw’s play, Henry Higgins attempts to create his version of a perfect woman by plucking a flower girl from the gutter and teaching her perfect English and proper social behavior. It isn’t, though, until she finds a soul that he is able to see her as anything other than a work of art.
Likewise, in the production of “Pygmalion” at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, it isn’t merely the skillful acting or talented tech work that makes the show transcendent; it is that it has a soul.
Directed by Jan Blixt, the Festival’s artistic director, “Pygmalion” is a show that beautifully blends all those elements that make theater magical. Jeromy Hopgood’s Picasso-inspired set pieces frame the play’s action, while Melanie Schuessler’s costumes set it firmly in 1912.
Central to this story are Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics, and Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl. Played by Joseph Wycoff and Stacy Stoltz respectively, they both bring an energy and authenticity to their roles that make each scene a delight to watch.
Wycoff commanded the stage while containing the action with crosses that spoke as voluminously as his not-infrequent speeches. He was arrogant, passionate and disdainful of all conventions that did not serve him. Never did he let the audience think of Higgins as a stuffed shirt or a befuddled academe. Rather, Wycoff’s Higgins was powerful, charismatic and insufferable in his intolerance for the stifling norm.
Stoltz transformed before the eyes of the audience. Her flower girl was full of vim, and her every move and noise contrasted with the ladies and gentlemen around her to firmly place her outside of their society. Her choices were so broad and committed that it made subsequent scenes even more rewarding, as her body and voice changed but the pepper of her personality still shone through.
And while the story belonged primarily to those two, all the actors surrounding them made sure they had the structure to tell their tale. David Turrentine’s Colonel Pickering was a delightful English gentleman with passion to match Higgins’ while still bowing to the social niceties of the day. Alan Ball’s Alfred Doolittle lived up to his name as the most original moralist in London, insouciant in his desire to remain among the undeserving poor.
Always a delight on the Michigan Shakespeare Festival stage, Janet Haley’s Mrs. Pearce tried nobly to civilize Higgins while maintaining a proper household as his housekeeper. She was at turns stern and motherly with Eliza, an unwilling participant in her transformation.
The soul of the play comes in its constant commitment to the story being told. There are no unnecessary movements or distracting bits. It is elegantly focused on the themes of transformation and classism, of finding what is authentic underneath that which is show. Every word and choice is played for the furtherance of the story, making it easy for the audience to get lost in a world of 1912 England where times were begrudgingly changing.
The result of the passionate acting and fine direction is the presentation of a classic work free of any cobwebs, one whose story offers as much to ponder now as it did when Shaw first presented it a century ago.
Bridgette M. Redman reviews local theater productions for http://www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.