May 27, 2017
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  • Professor Henry Higgins stumbles upon the homeless flower peddler Eliza Doolittle in Compass Rose Theater’s production of “Pygmalion,” now playing through May 21.
    Photo courtesy of Stan Barouh
    Professor Henry Higgins stumbles upon the homeless flower peddler Eliza Doolittle in Compass Rose Theater’s production of “Pygmalion,” now playing through May 21.

Compass Rose’s “Pygmalion” Packs A Punch

Dylan Roche
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May 16, 2017

If I told you there was this great love story that went a little something along the lines of “boy meets girl, boy gives girl a makeover, girl decides she’s too good for the boy and is no longer putting up with any of his nonsense,” would you be interested?

Before you dismiss the idea, try to remember that renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw wasn’t trying to impress traditionally minded audiences and critics with his “Pygmalion” any more than its heroine, a homeless flower peddler named Eliza Doolittle, decides she has to impress Henry Higgins, the pompous professor who makes a bet that he can refine her speech and manners and pass her off as a duchess at the governor’s ball.

If you’re willing to disregard modern storytelling tropes for a couple of hours — or, if not disregard them, at least challenge them — you’ll have much to reflect on after enjoying the simple but smart staging of Shaw’s play now onstage at Compass Rose Theater, where director Jim Knipple seems more than interested in the story’s themes of classism and sexism.

Unlike such “Pygmalion” adaptations as the musical “My Fair Lady” or, more recently, movies like “Pretty Woman” and “She’s All That,” Shaw’s original play makes no pretense that the manipulative relationship in which Higgins teaches Eliza to speak, dress and act like a proper lady is one that will lead to happy future together. If there’s a love story, it’s the story of Eliza realizing her own self-worth and dignity that she would never get from Higgins.

Knipple sets his “Pygmalion” in the 1960s, but with the exception of the mod set design, some fashionable costume choices and the upbeat scene-change music, the production could easily take place in either its original Edwardian context or even modern day.

The more significant choice is casting an interracial couple as Eliza (Mariea Terrell) and Higgins (Cameron McNary), thus furthering the themes of classism and sexism by adding hints of racism. If “Pygmalion” were to go along with traditional storytelling tropes, this would run the risk of making Higgins a white savior who rescues a person of color from pitiful circumstance — trite at best and offensive at worst.

Instead, the production — with McNary’s spot-on performance — lets us see Higgins how Shaw wrote him: a pompous, blustering fool who’s too self-satisfied to recognize the effect his actions have on others. McNary’s petulant, childish demeanor suits the character so well that it’s irritating (in a good way), especially when he’s called out on his poor behavior by his charmingly acerbic mother (Janet Preston in a performance we only wish we could see more of).

But the show really belongs to Terrell as Eliza, whose transition from unmannered beggar to dignified lady is full of moments that make the audience both laugh and cry. She’s hilarious when she can’t censor herself in front of the other members of genteel society, much to Higgins’ embarrassment, but she’s inspiring when she learns at last to stand up for herself and demand the respect that’s due to her. Terrell does well moving from one accent and behavior to another, but she’s most powerful when she’s showing us that she’s really the same person throughout. Higgins might have helped her trade her cockney accent for an upper-class manner of speaking (portrayed in large part, no doubt, to the fine work by the show’s vocal coach, Janel Miley), and Higgins might have even taught her how to act in public, but as Eliza tells him, “The difference between a lady and flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.” How can you not cheer for that?

As for the ending, it’s more or less up for interpretation. When Terrell makes her final exit, leaving Higgins alone onstage, it’s unclear whether she and Higgins will eventually reconcile and end up together. “Does Eliza stay with Higgins at the end of the play? Should she?” mused Lucinda Merry-Browne, Compass Rose’s founding artistic director. “Has her influence on him made him more self-aware and more gentle? Are they better together than they would be apart?”

The answer, at least as far as this production seems to show us, is no. McNary’s Higgins is an idiot. Terrell’s Eliza is too confident. And we as an audience are too content to watch her tell him off and get on with her life. George Bernard Shaw would be really proud.

“Pygmalion” demonstrates what Compass Rose Theater is steadily developing a reputation for doing in the Annapolis theater community — delving into classics, picking apart their themes and depicting their relevance for modern audiences. To order tickets for “Pygmalion” or learn about next season’s lineup, visit www.compassrosetheater.org.


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