Review: Pygmalion (Alexander Showcase Theatre)

Alexander Showcase Theatre presents George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion in Toronto

Alexander Showcase Theatre is currently staging George Bernard Shaw’s classic Pygmalion at Alumnae Theatre. It’s tale about a phonetics academic who bets that he can teach a low class girl to speak such that she can pass for a duchess at a royal garden party.

Eliza Doolitle is selling flowers for pennies when Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering come across her. Higgins is very interested in her pronunciation and claims that he could teach her to speak “properly” enough to pass for a duchess. Later, Eliza shows up at his house wanting to pay for speech lessons, but the Colonel makes the aforementioned bet with Higgins and Eliza is taken in to live with them. She is treated cruelly, but tempted with fine clothing, chocolates, and the money to takes taxi cabs wherever she likes.

A show that is so dependent on accents that are fine tuned to small regions and class striations is not an easy thing to play in modern North America, where I might be able to tell you if someone comes from the Canadian Maritimes, the American south, or New England, and not much more than that. The accent work in this production was in earnest, even if it did not always seem credible.

Also important to the play is the interpersonal dynamics and how they are informed by class and gender. Patrick Brown’s Henry Higgins and Nina Mason’s Eliza Doolitle have a good dynamic, the push-pull of attraction complicated by Higgins’ reprehensible snobbery and misogyny, and Eliza’s strong desire to better her station in life and her growing disillusionment with what such betterment means for a woman.

Eliza’s father, played by Seth Mukamal, shows up twice, providing comic relief to what already is a reasonably comedic show. Mukamal shines as the intelligent if uneducated and indolent Alfred Doolittle. The performances across the cast are a bit uneven, so it was delightful both times this character showed up, even though I wonder if his ruminations on class do more harm than good, as read by an audience of today.

My peeve about this production was the set. There is no need in this day and age for an excess of large set pieces that have to be rolled across the stage to demarcate every scene change. It disrupts the flow of action, it’s noisy and boring. Different scenes could easily have been marked by quick placements of the few useful pieces: a settee, an armchair and a desk with a chair. Everything else having to be moved about was superfluous.

Pygmalion is a nice little production, a decent night of entertainment, especially if you want to see such an historically important play.

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Photo of Ian Scott, Patrick Brown, Nina Mason and Brenda Massey-Beauregard by Paul Brown 

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