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The Playgoer: Compass Rose Theater’s Pygmalion

Still playing after all these years? That’s relevance

(photo by Stan Barouh) Mariea Terrell (right) blooms as Eliza Doolittle with E. Martin Ealy (left) as her father, whose bombast is both hilarious and relevant.

   There are many reasons that theater classics are classics. In most cases, the reason can be described with one word: relevance. No matter how long ago a work of art was created, its relevance to the human condition makes it timeless. Such is the case with George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, in a funny yet sobering revival at Compass Rose Theater.

            The play is over a century old. It was first produced for the public in 1913 in Vienna, and in New York the next year — later to be adapted as the hugely popular musical My Fair Lady. Shaw wrote to poke fun at the British class system and its treatment of women. Thus the relevance: no matter the decade, we are still discussing upper class versus middle and lower class, plus the struggle of women to be treated as equals. To prove the point, director Jim Knipple sets this version in the 1960s, with pop music and costumes that evoke the styles of the day. 

            Who is Pygmalion? In Greek mythology, he was a sculptor who fell in love with a sculpture he carved. Shaw’s version gives us the estimable but flawed professor of phonetics Henry Higgins, played here with youthful bluster by Cameron McNary. Higgins’ plan is to turn the lowliest common flower girl into a genteel duchess by teaching her manners and impeccable speech. He succeeds but falls to the delusion that he owns his creation. McNary’s animated portrayal of Higgins brings a lot of laughs, some with him, some at him, as Higgins’ myopia becomes more and more manifest.

            As Eliza Doolittle, Mariea Terrell blooms, grows, recognizes his control and forcefully works her way free. Terrell’s performance is a very nice progression from the streets to the ballroom, with lively good humor stopped short by her outbursts of protest. Look for the heart-melting scene after the ball when Higgins and his partner Col. Pickering celebrate their success — without acknowledging her part in it.

            The likeable Col. Pickering is nicely played by James Bunzli with a gentler air than Higgins and a clearer understanding that Eliza is not simply a subject. He’s still of the upper class, still a man in a man’s world, but Bunzli’s Pickering opens the door to the possibility that men of that era — and today? — could be a little more forward thinking.

            A solid supporting cast gives us various other characters, most notably Dianne Hood as Higgins’ voice-of-reason housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and Janet C. Preston as Henry’s mother, who has Eliza’s best interests at heart because she knows what it takes to be a successful woman in London. E. Martin Ealy is a wonderful Mr. Doolittle, Eliza’s lower-class father who seeks to profit from Higgins’ interest in his daughter. When Doolittle comes into money later in the show and presents a diatribe about having to live under “middle-class morality,” Ealy’s confused bombast is hilarious — and relevant.

            Spend an evening with Eliza and Henry and you’ll be rewarded with brisk pacing, true characters, laugh-out-loud comedy — and a timely classic.

Costume design: Renee Vergauwen. Props: Joann and Mike Gidos. Lighting design: Marianne Meadows. Sound design: Matt Lehtoh. Two hours 15 minutes with intermission. Thru May 21: FSa 8pm, SaSu 2pm, Compass Rose Theater, Annapolis, $38 w/discounts, rsvp: