A ‘Pygmalion’ with a modern new face
CAMBRIDGE — Given how familiar the story of “My Fair Lady’’ is, getting audiences to see “Pygmalion’’ with fresh eyes is no mean feat.
But the inventively freewheeling New York theater company known as Bedlam has pulled off precisely that trick in a trenchantly of-our-moment production that has arrived at Central Square Theater, presented by Underground Railway Theater.
While changing only a few words of George Bernard Shaw’s biting 1913 comedy — which, of course, was adapted by Lerner and Loewe into 1956’s “My Fair Lady’’ — and maintaining Shaw’s turn-of-the-century Edwardian setting, “Bedlam’s Pygmalion’’ nonetheless yanks the play into the multicultural present.
Eliza Doolittle (a wonderful Vaishnavi Sharma) is still a bedraggled flower girl intent on higher things, and she still undergoes elocution lessons delivered by Henry Higgins (Eric Tucker), a supercilious and tyrannical phoneticist. But instead of a Cockney accent associated with London’s East End, Bedlam’s Eliza speaks in a thick Indian accent in the early scenes at Covent Garden and Higgins’s Wimpole Street abode. We are given to understand that she and her father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Michael Dwan Singh), are originally from Delhi.
This change has the effect of not just deepening “Pygmalion’’ but transforming its meaning. A play that has always been about the striations and boundaries of class now becomes about race, immigration, and assimilation as well. The verbal abuse Higgins casually rains down on Eliza — that she is naught but “baggage,’’ a “creature’’ and a “squashed cabbage’’ who has “no right to live’’ and is “incapable of understanding anything’’ — now lands with the ugly force of bigotry. More than a whiff of colonialist condescension, even exploitation, now surrounds Higgins’s wager with Colonel Pickering (James Patrick Nelson) that Eliza will be able to pass as a duchess at an ambassador’s party with the benefit of his linguistic tutelage.
Then, too, Eliza’s poignantly expressed aspirations (“I want be a lady in a flower shop. They won’t take me till I talk more genteel.’’) register not just as individual ambition but as quintessential immigrant strivings in the face of the kind of white privilege, embodied by Higgins, that is determined to hang onto that privilege — or at least to establish rigid preconditions for immigrants who have the temerity to seek upward mobility. In this context, the fact that Eliza wears traditional Indian clothing to the ambassador’s party comes across as a defiant attempt to hold onto part of her cultural identity.
Lastly, while sexual politics have always been central to “Pygmalion,’’ the Bedlam production accentuates the gender-based power imbalance between Higgins and Eliza. Tucker dispenses with any Rex Harrison-like suavity and endows Higgins’s bullying with a sometimes threatening aspect: Henry’s misogyny is more palpable, his verbal eruptions are louder and more unsettling, and during one especially heated exchange, he grabs Eliza roughly by the shoulders.
Yet if this “Pygmalion’’ carries substantial new thematic weight, it all somehow does not translate to weightiness. The Shavian wit and vitality you look for in “Pygmalion’’ are here in abundance, thanks principally to the aplomb of a marvelous cast that is capable of balancing fast-paced repartee with equally rapid transformations into multiple characters on a set consisting of a table and a few chairs. (Those switches in character are signaled by the donning and doffing of different hats.)
Singh is a riot as Alfred P. Doolittle, bemoaning the snares of “middle-class morality’’ to which the hard-drinking reprobate unwillingly succumbs. Edmund Lewis lends a hilariously irritable air to Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s disapproving mother, while also playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza’s feckless suitor. Nelson employs his basso profundo to entertaining effect as Colonel Pickering, and goes up a few octaves to portray Freddy’s mother. Grace Bernardo brings plenty of withering starch to Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’s housekeeper, and is also quite funny as Freddy’s sister and a parlor maid.
Tucker communicates the full dimensions of Higgins’s God complex while, admirably, not seeking to ingratiate himself with the audience. As for Sharma, the actress delivers adroitly on the comedy of “Pygmalion,’’ especially during a gathering at Mrs. Higgins’s home, when Eliza — trying out her new diction — veers off the prescribed topic of the weather and treats the transfixed and horrified nobs to her theory that her late aunt was a victim of foul play.
But what makes Sharma’s portrayal of Eliza so moving is the undertow of conflicting emotions she signals as the scrappy flower girl negotiates the social ladder on her way to becoming a “proper lady.’’ Like many immigrants before her, this Eliza has an uneasy awareness of what she has lost as well as gained.
Play by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Eric Tucker. Production by Bedlam. Presented by Underground Railway Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through March 3. Tickets $25-$80; 617-576-9278, ext. 1, www.CentralSquareTheater.org