Plucky flower seller Eliza Doolittle is desperate to become a lady at the beginning of "Pygmalion." But by the end of George Bernard Shaw's 1913 twist on Greek mythology, the Cockney waif has resolved to become something much more substantive -- a woman.
While best known for the far less feminist musical it inspired, "My Fair Lady," Shaw's witty 1912 play has lost none of its fierce feminist edge to the passing of time. Indeed, it's almost sad how relevant his damning critique of class, gender and snobbery in Victorian England is today. The petticoats and bustles may have disappeared, but the pressure for women to conform to ideals of beauty and propriety set by men endures. An awareness of that laces Jon Moscone's crisp and clear revival of the extreme makeover comedy, which runs through Aug. 24 as part of the California Shakespeare Theater's summer season.
American Conservatory Theater stalwart Anthony Fusco is appropriately smug as the priggish professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, who bets he can transform the impoverished Eliza (Irene Lucio in her company debut) into a duchess in time for a posh society garden party. Higgins believes the key to class identity is speech and the ability to express oneself with elan.
With the help of his gentlemanly cohort Colonel Pickering (a plummy L. Peter Callender), Higgins transforms Eliza from a waif into a debutante. It never occurs to either him or Pickering that they are playing God with someone's life and that their little wager will forever shape her destiny.
Indeed, Fusco nails Higgins' obliviousness to the niceties of social interactions, his tendency toward droning lectures and his abject lack of courtesy for others with such precision that it entirely combats the romantic tensions within the piece. This is a thoroughly unlikable Henry Higgins, and it's hard to understand how Eliza could spend even a few hours in his company, let alone a few months. When he insults her, calling her a cabbage or an insect, the nastiness lingers.
While that's entirely appropriate thematically, it is also somewhat less pleasurable than a production which softens Higgin's pomposity with something like finesse. For her part, Lucio nicely charts Eliza's journey from ragamuffin to heroine, and she radiates vulnerability from start to finish. From her initial screeching and mewling to her eventual perfect elocution, Eliza is always utterly charming.
Even in the famous tea party scene, where Eliza must caper about like a trained seal in a hat worthy of "Beach Blanket Babylon" (costumes by Anna Oliver) to pass herself off as a lady, Lucio finds the humanity underneath the farce.
Still, there's not quite enough emotional heat generated in the scenes between Henry and Eliza here. Without the heart to ground Shaw's heady debates about social hierarchy, the play can seem a bit cold and cerebral.
Instead, this smart revival sparkles the most in its small moments. Sharon Lockwood is quite delightful as Higgins' elegant mother, the only woman who has ever learned how to put him in his place. James Carpenter invests Eliza's dustman father Alfred with a shattering range of qualities, from avuncular to brutal. Catherine Castellanos finds so much texture in the inner workings of Higgin's prissy housekeeper Mrs. Pearce that you wish the character had more lines.
Certainly, Moscone beautifully frames the ambiguity of the play's ending, which leaves Eliza's future uncertain but in her hands alone.
By George Bernard Shaw, presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Through: Aug. 24
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (off Highway 24), Orinda
Tunning time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission