Something extraordinary happened during last Friday night’s opening performance of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Pygmalion. The audience burst into spontaneous applause while the play was in progress. The first occurred after Alfred Doolittle’s (A. Bryan Humphrey) monologue in which he convinces Professor Higgins to pay him 5 pounds — but no more — to keep his daughter Eliza; the second after the famous tea party scene in which Eliza (Jennifer Lee Taylor) demonstrates her mastery of proper elocution, but not the niceties of social small talk.
Such applause is commonplace — even expected — during operas, ballets, and musical theater productions but it rarely, if ever, occurs during straight plays. Although some in the audience were perturbed by the interruption, to my mind it was a fitting tribute to two magnificent actors who brought new life to scenes that have consistently provoked huge belly laughs since the play premiered (oddly in a German translation in Vienna) in 1913.
George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912 for the famous English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell and it remains his most popular play. Despite her obvious talent, Shaw (along with Oscar Wilde) derided Mrs. Campbell’s affected diction, which he attributed to her social pretensions, but he was captivated by her nevertheless. He hit upon the idea of writing a satire that would provide a star vehicle for Mrs. Campbell and simultaneously skewer the rigid English class system in which accent cemented one’s place in society.
Shaw based the play on the classical myth of the sculptor Pygmalion, who becomes infatuated with his own statue Galatea. In the myth, Venus takes pity on the love-struck Pygmalion and turns the statue into a real woman.
Many people today know Pygmalion mainly as the source for the wildly successful Broadway show and later film My Fair Lady, which is a shame since Shaw’s original is as energetic, funny, and poignant as anything ever written by an English-language playwright. The story of how phonetics expert Professor Henry Higgins turns the cockney “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle into a refined lady is a captivating combination of comedy, romance, and social commentary. Shaw’s dialogue is hilarious and touching at the same time and the main characters are well-developed and engaging.
The role of Eliza is one of the most interesting and demanding in the theatrical canon. The more one is familiar with the cockney accent — and the better a job the actress does with it — the more remarkable her transformation. Taylor does a fine job with both the lower- and upper-class accents although she, like the rest of the cast, starts out a little too screechy. But she quickly calms down and by the second scene begins to demonstrate what a sensitive young woman Eliza is. In asking Higgins to take her on as a student, Eliza isn’t looking for riches or an aristocratic husband; all she wants is an accent that will get her a proper job in a flower shop.
Taylor is a luminous stage presence and captures perfectly the arc of Eliza’s development. In the early scenes she’s appropriately argumentative and feisty, but as Eliza learns to speak better and act more gracefully, Taylor allows us to see more and more of Eliza’s vulnerability. In the pivotal scene where Higgins and his colleague Colonel Pickering congratulate themselves on the good job they’ve done of passing her off as a gentlewoman, Eliza stands silently off to the side as they chatter on as though she’s invisible. Frozen in space and barely raising an eyebrow, Taylor is a heartbreaking combination of anguish and fury as she realizes they are never going to acknowledge her role in their success or her feelings as a flesh and blood human being.
Mark Anders is pitch-perfect as the boorish, overgrown schoolboy Henry Higgins. Higgins is brutish, insensitive, and arrogant but also an emotionally innocent, asexual mama’s boy and Anders switches instantly and believably from berating Eliza to taking his feet off the couch the moment his mother snaps at him. Anders understands that the key to Higgins’ character is underlying warmth that Higgins allows to emerge only occasionally. Even when the professor is at his most outrageous, Anders never lapses into caricature.
The other tour de force performance is that of Humphrey as Alfred Doolittle. He captures Doolittle’s evolution from the happy drunk dustman into a reluctant paragon of middle class morality and his two extended monologues are a marvel. Humphrey delivers both at the rapid-fire speed of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, which miraculously doesn’t leave him gasping for air. His perfect elocution is matched with a flair for physical comedy and a stage presence that commands attention.
Jeanne Paulsen is an imposing but kindly Mrs. Higgins and her scenes shine with radiant good humor and genuine caring. At first, Beth A. Cooper makes us think that Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, is just another doormat for the pretentious professor, but she demonstrates the protectiveness of a mother hen when Higgins mistreats the downtrodden Eliza.
In a nod to the musical, Seattle Shakespeare opens its Pygmalion by projecting a poster for My Fair Lady on a backdrop with some of its tunes playing softly in the background. From that point on, however, the show belongs entirely to Shaw and Seattle Shakespeare’s talented cast and production team. Director Jeff Steitzer, Scenic Director Jason Phillips, and Lighting Designer Andrew D. Smith make effective use of Intiman’s cramped stage by, respectively, keeping the actors’ movements contained, projecting images on the backdrop to add set elements, and focusing the lighting on the most important action.
Steitzer has wisely chosen not to use the scenes that Shaw wrote as optional, including one for Eliza and her suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and to retain Shaw’s original ambiguous ending. Even so the play drags just a little during the final confrontation between Eliza and Higgins, but that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise enchanting theatrical masterpiece.
If you go: Pygmalion, Seattle Shakespeare Company at Intiman Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., through March 11. Tickets $20-$40, by phone (206) 733-8222, online at www.seattleshakespeare.com or at the box office before each performance.