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May 24, 2011

A brisk 'Pygmalion' wraps up Everyman Theatre's 20th anniversary season

The idea of any intermingling between the social classes so alarmed Plato that he thought it "may be justly termed evil-doing."

Funny how that notion was still so ingrained centuries later that George Bernard Shaw could have a gleefully evil time skewering it in his 1912 play "Pygmalion."

Here, the clash of classes creates a collision that shatters egos as brusquely as social barriers, all the while generating zingers, a la Oscar Wilde. This venerable comedy gets a brisk workout in a handsome production that brings down the curtain on Everyman Theatre's 20th anniversary season.

With a dash of Cinderella and a smidgen of Svengali, the plot of "Pygmalion" works on one level merely as an imaginative take-off on the ancient Greek tale of a sculptor falling in love with a statue that comes to life.

But there's also quite an undercoating to the play, where Shaw's socialist leanings can be detected, along with what might be thought of as at least almost-feminist viewpoints.

A lot gets said in "Pygmalion"; a lot is left unsaid. Most famously, there's the question of how much romantic spark, if any, is generated over the course of the action between phonetics professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl he turns into a faux-princess on a whim and a bet.

Thanks to "My Fair Lady," the decidedly romanticized musical version of the play, many folks ...

understandably expect marriage (or a major affair) to be an inevitable step for this complicated couple at the final curtain. Shaw detested what he called that "silly and vulgar" interpretation, but it's hard to suppress.

The Everyman staging, smartly paced by director Eleanor Holdridge, strikes an effective balance of all-out antagonism and simmering attraction between the protagonists.

Kyle Prue emphatically reinforces what we all know: Humbleness hardly ever happens to this guy.

The actor can be a little stiff and a little too loud at times, but he knows how to put an awfully icy sting into the smug lines aimed at Jenna Sokolowski's rather endearing Eliza. And the look of perpetual displeasure on his face has an effective power.

Prue manages to convey that this Higgins is capable of minor sensitivity at the end, so those who want to believe that the professor will eventually woo Eliza may find sufficient evidence. Those convinced he'll never do any such thing will end up feeling just as vindicated.

Sokolowski is adept at conveying Eliza's own character flaws; the proud, stubborn streak in the poor creature boils over vividly whenever Higgins pushes the right buttons. Her lower-class accent could use a bit more color, but her comic timing and physical gestures in the early scenes of the play are spot-on.

Where Sokolowski really shines is later in the action, as the re-fashioned Eliza, capable of getting into a level of society previously unimaginable -- and getting further under Higgins' skin. 

She extracts great mileage out of each ultra-King's English articulation of "How do you do." And, scene by scene, she affectingly uncovers the woman beneath the "guttersnipe." 

Stan Weiman does expressive work as Col. Pickering, who helps set Eliza's makeover in motion and grasps its consequences.

Wil Love gives a delicious, scenery-chewing performance as Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, the member of the "undeserving poor" who lives up fully to his surname and "can't afford" morals.

Love nails the accent and the mannerisms with terrific flair, accounting for the most deeply realized characterization and heartiest laughs in the production.

In the pivotal party scene, he takes on another supporting role with equal panache (that party could use a few more guests to fill out the stage).

Lynn Steinmetz does equally dynamic work as Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper who tries to tame Higgins as much as Eliza; and as the tipsy hostess of the grand event where Eliza has her triumph of deception. Helen Hedman astutely conveys both the upper-crust and down-to-earth qualities of Mrs. Higgins.

Drew Kopas comes off a little too goofy as Freddy, the gentleman who develops a crush on Eliza, but he hams it up wonderfully as Nepommuck, the emphatically Hungarian alumnus of Higgins' linguistic training. Anne Grier and Barbara Pinolini round out the cast nicely.

Daniel Ettinger's imaginative set, enhanced by a few well-chosen projections and pieces of furniture, not to mention a burst of atmospheric rainfall, allows for an easy flow of the action -- a flow aided by whirling servants who execute scene changes. Except for one curiously short skirt for Eliza, Kathleen Geldard's costumes conjure early-1900s fashion in rich detail.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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