Produced by: Pear Avenue Theatre
Featuring: Ray Renati, Katie Rose Krueger, Caroline Clark, Helena G. Clarkson, Daniel Hurst, Troy Johnson, Ann Kuchins, Leslie Newport, Jackie O'Keefe, and Todd Wright
Directed by: Michael Champlin
When: June 19 through July 13, 2014
Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Avenue, Mountain View, California
Tickets:$10-$35 (discounts available). Call 650-254-1148 or visit www.thepear.org
Read Joanne Engelhardt's review of this play in The Daily News.
Pear Avenue Theatre has never been one to let its tiny size stop it from taking big risks, and usually its gambles have paid off well, in terms of audience interest, entertainment, and edification.
Case in point: "Pygmalion." George Bernard Shaw's great and most famous play, a witty and powerful dissection of British class and economic systems.
We all know the story, because we've all seen the musical "My Fair Lady," which is based on "Pygmalion."
It's a gamble for The Pear because it is the story of a British professor of phonetics, and how he raises a guttersnipe flower girl into society by teaching her to speak and behave properly.
But who to cast as this master of British accents?
Apparently Sir Anthony Hopkins was not available, so The Pear went to one of its mainstays, Ray Renati.
And he is very appealing in the role. He doesn't sound like Sir Anthony, whom I saw as Prospero, decades ago, but he sounded British to my ear.
More importantly, Renati provides the drama that fits Shaw's witty but pointed social commentary.
"Pygmalion" is not the sweet little romance that is "My Fair Lady."
Shaw himself fought against efforts to give his story more of a happy ending. He did not live to see the Broadway musical and the movie made of it.
But the basics of the story are the same in both approaches, up to the last scene, more or less.
Two experts on phonetics, Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, have a chance meeting with a number of different British accents and their owners, who are ducking out of the rain.
This a fun scene for the clear delineation of different accents by the cast, all of which Higgins identifies. Richard Newton is listed in the program as "British guru," which means, we think, he taught the cast to speak British. Fine job, as far as we know.
One of them is Eliza Doolittle, who is selling flowers. Events lead to her getting upset, and Higgins, who is full of himself, is scathing in his derision of her, but gives her some money. He has explained to Pickering that he makes a good living by teaching people to speak properly.
The next day, Eliza shows up at Doolittle's flat with her flower money, to hire him to teach her to speak well enough so she could work in a shop. Instead, as a lark, and on a bet, Higgins undertakes to improve her language and behavior well enough to pass her off as a duchess at a garden party. Helped along by Pickering's financing of a new wardrobe, the schooling begins.
And so begins the meat of the play, and of Shaw's scathing satire on the British class system.
Higgins is a pompous gasbag, viciously derisive of the flower girl.
"Has it occurred to you that the girl might have feelings?" he is asked.
"No, I think not," he replies, quite sure of himself.
While Higgins remains contemptuous of Eliza, Pickering wonderfully played by Troy Johnson always treats her with respect. Even as Eliza is dressed in one beautiful gown after another, she is still a guttersnipe to Higgins; it is Pickering's genteel, democratic behavior that helps Eliza learn to respect herself.
Katie Rose Krueger is excellent as Eliza. Dirty faced and crouched like an alley rat, she screeches and yells in a harsh, well-delivered Cockey accent. Then she cleans up nicely, and when dressed in any of a number of Lisa Lutkenhouse Lowe's fabulous gowns, she is stunningly beautiful.
She has fabulous scene after fabulous scene; my favorite subtle moment may have been when she is still fresh out of the gutter, and mesmerized by a plate that carried chocolates, which she'd never tasted before. It's a marvelous bit.
Johnson, as Pickering, never fails to be in his moments as an actor. He is Pickering, and earns out trust, as well as that of Eliza.
Todd Wright is powerful and hilarious as Eliza's ne'er-do-well father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Shaw gives Doolittle some of the most important dialogue in the play, as he roughly but accurately declaims on British economics and how they affect him. He is proudly a member of the undeserving poor, he says, and refuses to take more than five pounds when ten is offered, for fear of becoming middle class.
That's Shaw: Putting something important in the mouth of the clown, so everyone is laughing while they take their medicine.
Jackie O'Keefe is quite good as Henry's mother, who both despairs of her son's behavior and yet, perhaps, begrudgingly admires him. O'Keefe does a fine job of transitioning her character's development as she comes to care for Eliza.
And then there is that last scene, which I mentioned earlier. I don't want to give it away, but let me say that it is Renati's moment, when he has to put the final meaning of the Irishman Shaw's commentary about the British in his face. Renati delivers.
Ron Gasparinetti's set doesn't impress right away, but let Act 1 develop a bit, and then it flowers nicely. It starts as some kind of wall that offers shelter in the rain. It's supposed to be something grand, but looks more like a public restroom at the beach.
But then it is opened, and the unfolding walls in the middle and to each side are moved and arranged at different times to become Higgins' study, or Mrs. Higgins' public room. Very nicely done, and it's fun to watch the between-scenes choreography of the changing of the sets and furnishing. Remember, The Pear stage is about the size of a small living room, so it is practically magic that they get so much going with it.
Two cavils: Michael Champlin's direction overall makes everything work well enough; but the way he has O'Keefe blocked at the beginning of her scenes is really annoying. She is sitting stage left at a writing desk that is up against a wall, which puts her back to most of the audience. It's crowded, but her scenes would be better served if the desk were arranged so she was facing the audience when they begin.
And, there are holes or marks on that wall. Annoying. No such thing allowed in an upper-class British drawing room! Slap some paint on that wall, please.
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org