Dustin Whitehead as Professor Henry Higgins and Mary Paola as Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" at Acadia Repertory Theatre. PHOTO COURTESY OF ACADIA REP

“Pygmalion” is jolly good!

Review by Nan Lincoln


MOUNT DESERT — There are some terrific stories that have been enthralling listeners and audiences for hundreds of years. Millennia, even. They have been told and retold in various forms and iterations and, somehow, always manage to seem relevant.

The tale of Pygmalion is one of these. It first appeared as a Greek myth in which a sculptor named Pygmalion is so enamored of his own marble creation, Galetea, that the gods agree to give the sculpture life.

It’s one of those “be careful what you wish for” scenarios.

In George Bernard Shaw’s dramatic version of the story, which is now playing at the Acadia Rep Theatre in Somesville, the Pygmalion character, Professor Henry Higgins, is also obsessed with his creation, a flower peddler named Eliza Doolittle, whom he has transformed into a facsimile of a proper lady.

Unlike the later Lerner and Lowe musical, Shaw’s play deals less with the process of Eliza’s transformation and more with the aftermath and social politics of the time.

It is a brilliant piece of theater and the Acadia Rep cast and crew do a brilliant job performing it.

From the moment one walks into the rustic little Somesville Masonic Hall and observes an elegant, pillared proscenium arch representing the façade of a 19th-century British concert hall — just the first of several great set designs—one has the sense that the evening is going to be a whole lot of fun. And it is.

The pounding heart of this play is, of course, the relationship between the overbearing Professor, played with pompous perfection by Dustin Whitehead, and his obstreperous pupil, Eliza, a feisty little bundle of dynamite, wonderfully realized by Mary Paola. She, by the way, honed her considerable acting talents on the MDI High School stage.

Throughout most of the play we are outraged by the Professor’s borderline cruel treatment of the subject of his “experiment.” But eventually we learn there is a sort of method to his meanness. He doesn’t aim to simply re-sculpt Eliza into a passable version of a proper Victorian socialite — most of whom he despises — he aims to reshape her soul and bring her new life as a strong, independent woman, beholden to no one, including himself — perhaps losing her in the process. Again, be careful what you wish for.

The musical loses this important point of Shaw’s version, suggesting that Eliza submits in the end. It is good to be reminded.

When we first meet Eliza, it is hard to see through her dirty face, gawping expressions, guttural yawps and whines, the elegant lady we know she will become. But Paola pulls it off magnificently. During her mid-transition scene, at a soiree at the home of the Professor’s mother’s, she holds forth like a programmed automaton, punctuated by over-articulated H’s and bursts of the old Eliza. It is a hilarious scene, but also a poignant one, when Mrs. Higgins (the wonderful Cheryl Willis) points out to her son that he has created a hybrid that will not be able to function in either her old world or the new one for which he has outfitted her.

If Higgins and Eliza are the heart of this play, Eliza’s unrepentant scallywag of a dad, Alfred Doolittle, is another vital organ. The spleen perhaps?

Bernard Hope seems to have been born to play this role. A big man with an even bigger stage presence, he steals every scene he is in with his pontificating about the perils of middle class morality with a rough eloquence that rivals the Professor’s.

Frank Bachman is also splendid as Colonel Pickering, a kinder, gentler version of Higgins.

As the besotted Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Desmond Reifsnyder (who graduated last month from MDIHS) is delightfully fey and fun.

The smaller roles of Mrs. Pearse, the Professor’s officious housekeeper and Freddy’s straight-lace mother, also were well played by Chrissy Taylor and Kate Hall respectively.

Jaylene Roth’s costumes are for the most part excellent, successfully taking Eliza through her phases from ragamuffin to elegant lady with some very stylish ensembles and, perhaps even more impressively, making the men look proper in their parts, their class and for the era, with some great details, such as Higgins’s spats. The one misstep here is Mrs. Higgins. A proper dowager of that era would never appear in public uncorseted. While Willis was excellent in this role, she rather resembled a Bohemian or gypsy fortune teller.

But never mind, Michael Kissin’s direction was so fast paced and energetic we didn’t have time to dwell on such trifles and a jolly good time was had by all. There are only four more performances. Don’t miss this one!

“Pygmalion” runs Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:15 p.m. with a special closing matinee on Sunday, the 22nd, at 2 p.m.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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