Review: Boston Events Insider

Flat Earth Gives Pygmalion a Makeover (3 stars)

by Michele Markarian, Boston Events Insider

Pygmalion, written by George Bernard Shaw and adapted by Devon Jones. Directed by Devon Jones. Presented by Flat Earth Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through August 30.

Under His Majesty's Recovery ("an ongoing aesthetic, artistic, governmental, military, and above all, moral project unsurpassed in the Western world; the return to a proudly imperial tradition is not merely a matter of taste but one of lifestyle") London is controlled by a totalitarian police state. This is the context for Flat Earth Theatre's production of Pygmalion, which, like the subway stations that comprise the set for the play, is 100 years old. The period costumes of Edwardian times, worn by the elite, are in direct contrast with the modern day clothing of the less fortunate.

Henry Higgins is a liguist who has a run-in with Eliza Doolittle, a scrappy, lower-class seller of flowers. After verbally sparring with her, Higgins makes a bet with Colonel Pickering, an admired expert in Indian dialects, that in six months' time, he can convert her, with elocution lessons and comport, into a respectable member of the elite class. He does, but not without exposing himself as a misogynistic, ill-mannered man. Like most social experiments conducted my well-meaning and moneyed people, he has not given Eliza's welfare any consideratoin beyond the six months that she has in his household.

Allison Olivia Choat's set design is simple and beautiful, consisting of a Tube map and several benches. It is odd to see members of the upper class in the Underground (in present-day London, members of the upper class have drivers, not Oyster Cards). The interesting thing about the clash between lower and upper classes is that in the end, they are not so different - it is the middle class who have manners. As Eliza Doolittle's father Alfred (wonderfull played by Stephen Turner) says after a windfall, "I have to live for others instead of myself. That's middle class morality." As a lower-class scoundrel, he had no problems scamming people for money; now he feels responsible for others, unlike Henry Higgins.

Eliza is played by Jaclyn Johnson, who is outstanding in the role. Her transformation from street urchin to faux Duchess is marvelous; she is persuasive as both. She has a vulnerability that makes us care about her, and as the play's protagonist, it's extremely effective. As Henry Higgins, Chris Chiampa is alternately rational, uptight, and ultimately, despicable. Tom Beyer lends a nice dignity to Colonel Pickering. J. Deschene is convincing as both a homeless person and Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, lending a sonorous voice to the latter. The accests in the piece were consistent throughout and quite good.

I suppose I am a purist - while the adaptation explains why the action takes place in the Underground and how a person like Henry Higgins can exist, there is nothing in the script that suggests this. In the end, it is more of a distraction than an illumination. Still, given the pure creativity that Flat Earth put into the revision, I'd say they're a company to watch.