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Chauvinist Pyg

By brad senning
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 4, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

"Pygmalion" is playing at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway, through March 28. Tickets are $10 per person, $9 for students. The performance times are 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

Ovid wrote the original story of Pygmalion in "Metamorphoses." It is about a sculptor who hates real women, so he makes himself a life-size love doll out of ivory. He dresses it up in fancy clothes and jewels its ears with pearls. He lays it upon his cushions and calls it his "bedfellow." One day, Venus brings Pygmalion's creation to life. And Pygmalion finally has a real woman worth living with.

George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" has one fundamental change. The guy doesn't get to keep the girl. Shaw believed that the ragshop of ready-made "happy endings" was the bastard child of romance. So he made a story that was more believably arbitrary. An indefinite ending that only hinted at the possibilities.

The story goes something like this: Henry Higgins, a famous scholar of phonetics meets by chance another cunning linguist named Colonel Pickering. They get to talking about how poorly the English people speak. But Higgins is a Utopian who believes that correct speech can be taught.

As an example, he points out a nearby, brutish flower-girl named Liza Doolittle. "You see this creature with her curbstone English," he says to Pickering, "the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass her off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party."

When Liza seeks his instruction the very next day, Pickering reminds Higgins of the boast and they both set out to edify the girl as a sort of sport.

You may recognize the story if you've ever seen the musical "My Fair Lady." At times, I half expected the cast of "Pygmalion," playing now at Live Theatre Workshop, to sing instead of recite their remonstrances. But the cast of this play is enough in concert to provide for an appreciation close to that of music.

That doesn't mean it is an especially good performance. In fact, the cast is on a level of equal mediocrity, which makes for an easy acceptance of the dramatic act. No one character outperforms another. However, since some characters have considerably more lines than other characters, their mediocrity is more or less apparent.

James Mitchell Gooden, who plays Henry Higgins, has a flare for timing and quick delivery that galvanizes the performance and gives the play an impressive pace. He makes this unbelievably chauvinistic character likable, which is his most sterling quality. Jennifer Williams plays the broguish flower-girl Liza Doolittle inconsistently but gets better when she recites lines in a duchess's English. One of the flaws in her performance is that she treats the diverging speech acts as if they embody two different characters instead of split characters in the same psyche. And Bruce Bieszki, who plays Liza's father Alfred Doolittle, faults the character with sheepish mannerisms, throwing a bit of Stan Laurel into his staging instead of mastering the written part. Fortunately his lines - some of the best tracts of amoral logic ever written for the stage - speak more definitively than he does.

Despite the long spells between scenes, the play moves well. To the credit of the director of "Pygmalion," Elizabeth Seddon Gooden, the play works around the constraints of the performance space and nobly ignores the audience members who wend around the stage in the middle of the performance to get to the restroom. If nothing else, "Pygmalion" plays to the mediocrity of its audience, which is a kind of merit in itself.

And the choice of endings attests to this conventional approach. The director undercuts Shaw's vision of indefinite endings with added lines that imply Liza will get married. Though it's not written in the script except in an author's note appended to the play, the certain ending plays to the audience's expectations. And like the vivified creation of Ovid's Pygmalion, the woman's only course is to fall into matrimony with a man.