'Pygmalion' crackles with criticism

While "My Fair Lady" has been described as "the perfect musical," not many theatergoers know it was based on George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play, "Pygmalion," considered scandalous in its time for its scathing portrayal of English class division and social mobility.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor David Kelly and many of the cast appearing in OSF's current production of "My Fair Lady" will re-introduce Shaw's play to benefit the Ashland Schools Foundation and the Ashland High School Drama Department at the same time.

They'll present a staged reading of "Pygmalion" at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30, in the Mountain Avenue Theatre at AHS, 201 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland. Tickets cost $15, $20 for reserved seats, and can be purchased online at www.showtix4u.com or at Paddington Station.

The reading is not an OSF production, and the actors have volunteered their time.

"We've staged the reading as simply as possible," Kelly says. "The actors will be at music stands. It will be like a radio play."

Kelly also has condensed the script down to two almost one-hour acts, he says.

"The published edition of 'Pygmalion' that we're using includes Shaw's commentary on the play and stage directions," Kelly says. "Michael J. Hume will appear as Shaw and act as narrator."

Rachel Warren and Jonathan Haugen, the Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in OSF's "My Fair Lady," will play their respective roles at the reading, as will Kelly as Colonel Pickering, Anthony Heald as Alfred P. Doolittle and Miriam A. Laube as Mrs. Pearce.

Jeremy Peter Johnson plays Freddy Eynsford Hill, Kate Mulligan is Mrs. Higgins, Isabell Monk O'Connor is Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Kjerstine Rose Anderson is Clara Eynsford-Hill and Eduardo Placer is Nipommuck.

This is Kelly's second fundraising reading for the Ashland Schools Foundation and AHS's Drama Department. Three years ago, when the festival was doing "Hamlet," Kelly staged a reading of Tom Stoppard's "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," with actors from the OSF cast. The reading of "Pygmalion" came together with the help of AHS Drama Department's Betsy Bishop and Jana Carole, and Susan Bacon of the Ashland Schools Foundation.

Shaw's "Pygmalion" has harder edges than the romanticized Broadway musical. Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins may not be lovable, but he positively oozes charm compared with the obsessive Higgins in "Pygmalion." Shaw's dialogue crackles with biting criticism of the society that occupied the Downton Abbeys of his day.

"Shaw did not write a happy ending," Kelly says. "When Shaw saw a production of his play that ended with Higgins and Eliza as a couple, he was incensed. He wrote and published a bitter rebuttal, called 'The Sequel,' insisting that Eliza has the free will to make a choice and her new-found social mobility allows her to do so."

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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