Classic Shaw at Neumann University: PYGMALION

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Written in 1912, Shaw’s PYGMALION tells the story of Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle, whose life is turned upside down when a Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins, makes a bet that he can train her to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech.  Inspired by a portion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shaw is lampooning the rigid British class system of the day, as well as commenting on women’s independence.  And it’s all neatly packaged as a romantic comedy.

Director Ken Kaissar, an adjunct professor at Neumann, has assembled a cast of students from the University’s Arts Production & Performance program—as well as couple from other departments—to present this classic piece of theatre.    PYGMALION is considered by many to be Shaw’s most accessible work. It is unfortunate that the company only gets now thru Sunday to perform it; with a little more time, they might achieve a more polished production.  I sincerely applaud the effort (believe me), but everything had an air of being “not quite ready for primetime.”  Perhaps it was opening night jitters on the part of the cast—which may improve over the course of the next 3 performances. On a whole, the acting was serviceable, but I kept wishing for so much more.  

As Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, Michael Conover and Kaitlyn Rose Broadhurst have potential; the scenes between the two were rather enjoyable. They made good sparring partners and created believable sexual tension.  Mr. Conover really seemed to relish the language Shaw provided him with and played with the words to bring them to life.  Hopefully he will continue to study, perform and polish his craft. Ms. Broadhurst was a frustration to me.  She has a good stage presence and created some lovely moments here and there, BUT…

I have done dialect coaching (primarily of British dialects) for a number of years. One thing I learned early on was to keep in mind that it is American ears listening to the dialogue, so certain accommodations must be made in the interest of clarity.  I’ve also learned to bring in a set of “virgin ears” approximately 2 weeks or so prior to opening to see if they understand what is being said.  Sadly, neither of these things was done and I understood very little of Ms. Broadhurst’s dialogue during her early scenes; her upper-class accent was much better. She needs to slow down and over enunciate when she is doing her Cockney. Hopefully that will help considerably.  She also needs to explore other ways of expressing anger as she tends to get very shrill vocally and I was not able to grasp what she said during those moments in the play.   

I don’t know if anything could help Frank Leo Formica as Alfred Doolittle—his accent was all over the place and unintelligible. He seems to have a flair for comedy, but some judicious editing of his shtick would have been wise. I give him the same advice as Ms. Broadhurst—slow down and enunciate.  The rest of the company needs to project more as well—and watch upstaging yourselves; we want to see your reactions.  Again, I really do wish you all had more time to explore the piece and fine tune things.

I also would have simplified the set to facilitate quicker transitions from location to location. Perhaps a series of periaktoids* that could be flipped by the actors to the different sides, with a few pieces of furniture added to suggest the location. While Gwynneth Milliner created a clever design, it sometimes got in the way of the flow of the piece.  And the entire thing had the look of a set on the Saturday before opening: construction is 95% completed and now we have to add the finishing touches.  Lauren Whelan’s costuming also had an air of being just this side of done—Eliza and Mrs. Higgins would not be in the same dress the morning after Eliza’s visit for tea.  And 1950s mink stoles—seriously?

Brian T. Kavanagh’s lighting and Clifford Hall’s sound design both worked well.  My suggestions would have been more blue lights in the night scene and music at intermission as several people were in the house for quite a bit of that time.

Like they say: “The devil is in the details”—and many of those were missing.  

*periaktoids—3-sided/triangular  set pieces that are usually on wheels so they can be easily turned from one side to the next and reconfigured if needed.

by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Ken Kaissar
November 11 – 14, 2010
Neumann University Players
One Neumann Drive
Aston, PA  19014

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