George Bernard Shaw classic takes to the outdoor stage in Toronto
It’s summer, and once again I am rhapsodizing about the joys of outdoor theatre in Toronto. The city truly has a wide variety of choices when it comes to experiencing theatre en plein air. The Guild Festival Theatre’s production of Pygmalion, currently being performed at Guild Park and Gardens in Scarborough, is yet another reason to grab some insect repellent and head outside for some great performances in a lovely setting.George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is the well-known story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, who sets out transform Eliza Doolittle, a poor girl selling flowers on a street corner, into someone who can pass as a duchess. It’s light and funny and perfectly suited to a summer evening in the park.
Although it was written in 1912, Pygmalion conveys some surprisingly modern ideas about class and the role of women in society. Under Jeannette Lambermont-Morey’s direction, those ideas are highlighted and definitely come to the forefront. Higgins’ comments about Eliza’s lower-class status, as well as those about her as a woman, seemed old-fashioned and dated, causing regular gasps from the audience.
But it was also hard not to see the contemporary relevance: the professor’s position as a man of privilege explaining how the world works to a young woman isn’t that different from what we see in the media every day.
I thought the cast delivered excellent performances all around. Siobhan O’Malley, as Eliza, was terrific. She was able to transform from the lowly flower girl to a refined young lady very convincingly. I also really enjoyed Devon Bryan as Alfred Doolittle. His suave demeanor and way with words was terrific. He was slippery, conniving, yet good hearted and very funny.
My favourite performance was given by Tracey Ferencz, double cast as both Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins. She portrayed both women, one a servant and one an aristocrat, as enlightened and powerful, leaving no doubt as to who really controls Higgins’ life. Her ability to switch between a Scottish accent and an upper-class accent was very impressive.
In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by most of the accents in the show. Usually, I am not a big fan of “fake” accents in theatre performances. It is very hard to do them well, and many actors can’t sustain an accent for the length of a performance. But Pygmalion is a play about how the way one speaks can define one’s life, so getting it right is important. Although I don’t have Henry Higgins’ ability to determine a person’s origin and class from a few words, I though the actors skillfully used accents to build and define their characters.
Rachel Forbes’ costume and set designs were also very effective. The play is performed among arches and columns salvaged from the former Bank of Toronto building. It’s an inherently dramatic setting, so the use of a few furniture pieces and simple props was all that was needed to set the mood. The costumes were beautiful too. If you’re a fan of Downtown Abbey, you will swoon over the gorgeous dresses, shoes, and particularly the hats!
The one false note for me was the musical interludes. Before the show and in between scenes, three of the actors sang and played Celtic music. They were nice to listen to, but I don’t think they fit with the rest of the performance or added anything to the story.
The Guild Festival Theatre almost shut down after last season when they lost their main funding source. But the local Guildwood community rallied. Through grass roots efforts they were able to piece together government, corporate and individual support to save what is clearly a beloved cultural resource. I’m certainly happy for their success. I recommend heading east and adding the Guild Festival Theatre’s Pygmalion to your summer theatre schedule.
- Pygmalion is playing at Guild Park and Gardens (201 Guildwood Parkway) until August 12, 2018.
- Shows run Wednesday through Sunday at 7:30pm with matinees on Wednesdays at 2pm.
- Tickets are $25/$20 for students, seniors, and arts workers and can be purchased online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.
Photo of David John Phillips and Shane Carty by Barry Scheffer