Joe Munroe, Kate Bringardner, Annie Bulleit, JoAnne Sweeny, & Josh O’Brien. Photo: The Chamber Theatre
Eliza: A Play on Pygmalion
Adapted from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Martin French
Review by Kate Barry
Entire contents are copyright © 2018, Kate Barry. All rights reserved.
Mention the name Eliza Doolittle and what comes to mind? Bouncy tunes about dancing all night or how the rain in Spain stays on the plain? Or you might think of Julia Roberts being saved from a life on the streets? There is something about this lady that keeps popping up in the zeitgeist. Her personality has a bite and she is one of a kind. Yet Eliza would not have a story to tell without a man changing everything about her. I mean really, who does this guy think he is? With Eliza: A Play on Pygmalion, The Chamber Theater crafts a modern perspective on George Bernard Shaw’s fable. And this new take on Eliza and her story present a fascinating point of view on privilege that resonates in today’s climate.
Director Martin French has impressively adapted and reduced the seemingly dense Shavian work into a roughly hour-long piece set in Louisville with modern vernacular. Dialogue is updated with modern slang and verbiage yet the personalities of these characters remain the same. Eliza’s cockney dialect is replaced by a Pennsylvanian accent infused with Mid-American short vowel sounds and choppy syllables. The way you talk, where you are from, and the presumption of what kind of person you are matters most in this translation. Characters reside in the plush East End with privilege and proper pronunciation while Eliza dwells in the dregs of St. James Court with the ambition to, “talk more, you know, nice.”
Although setting and dialogue are updated, the story also remains the same: Henry Higgins plucks Eliza from the streets and changes her dialogue and mannerisms to fit into the upper class. Josh O’Brien’s Higgins is something out of modern day politics where women should smile more. A master of his domain, O’Brien shows out snobby disregard as his work blinds him from the reality that his decisions affect another person.
Kate Bringardner’s Eliza is Higgins’ pawn with the strength to overcome his control and rise up on her own. Her down-to-earth portrayal is sympathetic as her interactions with Higgins resonate with micro-aggressions that could occur in any workplace. And this is an Eliza who’s funny. In her initial transformation, Bringardner takes on a mechanical Barbie-like presence as she steps into a new world with rehearsed lines and rigid posture and movement. Eliza struggles to withstand Higgins pressure for perfection and resist losing her true self. Her struggles are illustrated through tableau and narration providing a glimpse of the grueling work she must endure. Eliza’s initial boiling point and explosive rejection of Higgins lacked the energy that would have been gained from the stressful lessons between teacher and pupil. Nonetheless, O’Brien and Bringardner deliver strong performances.
A strong supporting cast emphasizes the contemporary spin. Joe R. Monroe brings sympathy to Eliza’s situation as Dr. Pickering. Monroe pulls double duty as playwright Shaw himself. Providing introductions to the action and opportunities to examine Eliza’s journey further, Monroe was charismatically engaging with his small audience. Laurene Scalf is commanding and doesn’t have time for Higgin’s nonsense as his mother. While Jake Minton stutters and mumbles with adorable awkwardness as he attempts to woo the strong-willed Eliza, Annie Bulleit brings millennial non-conformity and high aspirations to her role as Clara. Constantly justifying their behaviors, defending others and judged based on superficial factors like age, Julia Bright Moran and JoAnne Sweeny as Sophia and Marian each bring humorous glimpses into what its like to have gender determine your worth.
The Chamber Theatre takes Shaw’s play a step further by exploring his sequel concept as well. Eliza has left poor Henry Higgins but where did she go? In a brief scene at the end of the play, Doolittle faces her arrogant taskmaster once more. Apologies are made as well as a plan to smash the glass ceiling. Now wouldn’t that be loverly?
Eliza: A Play On Pygmalion
November 9 – 17, 2018
The Chamber Theatre
Hope Culture Community Church
1860 Mellwood Avenue
Louisville, Kentucky 40206
Kate Barry earned her Bachelors in English with a Theater minor from Bellarmine University in 2008. She has worked with many different companies around town including Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Bunbury Theater, Louisville Repertory Company, Walden Theater, Finnigan Productions and you have probably purchased tickets from her at that little performing arts center on Main Street as well. In 2012, her short play “PlayList” won festival favorite in the Finnigan Festival of Funky Fresh Fun. She has written for LEO Weekly and TheatreLouisville.com as well. Thanks for reading!