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REVIEW: “Pygmalion” — Little Fish Theatre, San Pedro

Little Fish Theatre, notably situated in the San Pedro / LA Waterfront Arts District, presents “Pygmalion,” by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Branda Lock, in a streamed virtual event premiering May 15th at 7pm and running thru May 31st at 11pm. This first Little Fish live production since the pandemic began was fully-produced and filmed on an outdoor stage in San Pedro, California.

The cast includes: Margaret Schugt (“13 O’Clock;” “Embridge”) as Prof. Henrietta Higgins; Sydnée Grant (YouTube series, “Micah Makes a Movie”) as Eliza Doolittle; Danny Smalls (“Othello;” “Oberon”) as Alfred Doolittle; Warren Davis (“The Car Plays” Moving Arts at Segerstrom Center for the Arts; TV: “Criminal Minds”) as Col. Pickering; Michele Schultz (“London Suite;” “Unhidden Figures”) as Mrs. Higgins; Shirley Hatton (“Present Laughter;” “Brighton Beach Memoirs”) as Eynsford-Hill/Pearce; Connor Sullivan (“And Then They Came for Me;” “How High The Moon”) as Freddy.

“Pygmalion” is a play named after a Greek mythological figure. It was first presented on stage to the public in 1913. Shaw's play has been adapted numerous times since then, most notably as the 1938 film "Pygmalion," in the 1956 musical "My Fair Lady" and its 1964 film version.

The play chronicles the classic tale of the waif-like northern Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (the winning Ms. Grant) as she is transformed into a “proper lady” by the arrogant and obnoxious dialect expert Henrietta Higgins (Ms. Schugt in a venerable yet terrific turn). Motivated by a bet, Professor Higgins takes Eliza from the street and teaches her proper English, proper gentility and proper elements of Edwardian manners. Higgins and her friend Colonel Pickering (Mr. Davis) see Eliza more as an experiment than a person with feeling and dreams of her own, only to discover that his creation has a strong mind of her own.

(In the musical, “My Fair Lady,” which set a record for the longest run of any musical on Broadway up to that time, the phonetician is always male. The movie, as well, joined Audrey Hepburn with Rex Harrison as the arrogant phonetics professor, “Henry” Higgins. Between the screen version and the stage version, it’s become surprisingly hard to see “Pygmalion” in its original form.)

The work contains stinging wit and biting social commentary on class, manners, and the place of women in English society in pre-World War I Edwardian British circles. Director Lock places Higgins as a more vulnerable, fully realized character in awe of her tough mother, here played with caustic wit and an irresistibly camp turn by Michele Schultz. Eliza’s near-exposure in Mrs. Higgins' drawing room, when she regales the company with lurid details of her aunt's gin-related death, is brilliantly done.

Add a most impressive witty rascal Alfred P. Doolitle played with magnetism by Mr. Smalls, and Pygmalion becomes an impressive play. It dramatizes, with sharp wit, humor, and drawing power, the different classes in conflict as women’s role in society was emerging from Victorian values. A strong-willed Eliza is seen begging for acceptance, yearning to be treated as a person rather than an experiment, and fighting Higgins to the end. Ms. Grant’s portrayal is beautifully contained and resists the urge to trip into melodrama, always retaining dignity, humor and biting reality.

What resulted was an effervescent satire with a hacksaw-hard political edge. Branda Lock, who always has surprising directorial tricks up her sleeve, has sharpened that edge considerably by skimming off a fair amount of the play’s comedy and make it noticeably harsher in tone than is usually the case — though she also slips a subtle touch of ambiguity into the last scene.

The various dialects, especially in the early scenes were excellent and authentic. Sydnée Grant's rich articulation from street utterances to proper speech was most effective, although described by Higgins as a “depressing and disgusting” accent, calling it an all-but-impenetrable amalgam of working class Cockney. In a basic geographical and cultural sense, Cockney is best defined as a person born within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London. Her strong-willed Eliza begged for acceptance and to be treated as a person rather than an experiment, fighting Higgins to the end.

There is no contrived happy ending. Eliza accepts a proposal of marriage from Mr. Sullivan’s Freddy, a kind-hearted but "weak and poor" young man, and plans to earn a living by teaching Higgins' method of elocution. At the end of the play, Higgins is left alone with his pronunciation charts and gramophone recordings, and you don't have to be unduly pessimistic to wonder how long Eliza will continue to patronize the spineless Freddy.

The production team includes: Branda Lock – Director/Props; Lisa Coffi – Producing Artistic Director; Tara Donovan – Producer/Props; Sara Haddadin – Technical Director; Debra Ann Byrd – Dramaturg; Tristan Griffin – Scenic Designer; Michael Mullen – Costume Designer; Doug Mattingly – Sound Designer/Film Editor; Cinthia Nava-Palmer – Audio Engineer.

Drawing its title from the Greek myth about an artist who falls in love with his own sculpture, “Pygmalion” has influenced a body of cultural work in the past century, not only in “My Fair Lady,” but “Pretty Woman” and more subtle derivations in “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock Holmes.” In this bold new re-imagining, Director Lock nudges Little Fish’s “Pygmalion” into an Ikea-furnished 21st Century, with Shaw’s original dialogue intact, and all the bite and contention of cutting-edge theatre.

For tickets and performance dates, go to:

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report


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