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It’s a rare thing to experience George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” without Lerner and Loewe’s fingerprints all over it. But at Central Square Theater (through March 3), the 1913 inspiration for “My Fair Lady” comes smeared instead with New York-based troupe Bedlam’s prints — left less by a gentle touch than by propulsive shoves. “Bedlam’s Pygmalion,” as the slimmed-down show is billed, is like the love child of GBS and the Energizer Bunny.
Whether we’re talking Greater Boston or Shaw, Bedlam is no stranger to the territory. The troupe first tore onto the local Rialto with its moveable feast of a “Saint Joan,” hosted by Central Square Theater in 2015, and has since returned to area stages with “Twelfth Night,” “Hamlet” and a furniture-hurtling adaptation (by Kate Hamill) of “Sense and Sensibility.” Now comes this fleet and fast-talking “Pygmalion” in which six performers juggle 10 parts, often changing characters just by changing hats. (In one dexterous instance, Bedlam vet Edmund Lewis, without leaving his chair, ricochets between an imperious, exasperated Mrs. Higgins, her cropped head unadorned but for earrings, and Freddy Eynsford-Hill, popping on a fedora as if it were a nametag.)
Of course, no one mentions the rain in Spain or that “in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.” But in the production’s opening scene, with a portion of the Central Square audience milling through it, phonetics professor Henry Higgins, played by director Eric Tucker as a smug tyrant with mother issues and a streak of the brat, does discover flower girl Eliza Doolittle plying her foul-mouthed trade at the Covent Garden vegetable market. And boasting that, if given the chance, he could so thoroughly wipe out her offending mouth with elocution that she could pass as a duchess, he sets both the plot and Shaw’s dissertation in motion.
But here Eliza’s no cockney guttersnipe but an impoverished emigrant from Delhi, portrayed with pert fire and grace, not to mention a layer of pensiveness, by Vaishnavi Sharma. Her amoral dustman dad, too, is Indian (which slants the play toward a criticism of colonialism rather than class, but I found I could live with that). Moreover, in Shaw’s play, both Eliza’s father, Alfred, a proud member of “the undeserving poor,” and Higgins’ formidable mom have more to say than they do in “My Fair Lady.”
But then, everyone has more to say in a Shaw play — particularly, in this one, when it comes to issues of social stratification, female independence and the hampering evils of “middle-class morality.” The witty if long-winded feminist/Ibsenist author was so much less concerned with the sparking romance between Higgins and Eliza than in hewing down the barriers between the classes that he appended a lengthy afterward to the printed edition of the play enumerating all the reasons why Eliza would never marry Higgins. Of course, in the age of #MeToo, the exploitation of the flower girl by powerful men is front and center: certainly Higgins stands accused, even if the favors he seeks are linguistic rather than sexual.
The delightful Bedlam staging, pared down to just over two hours, misses little of Shaw’s droll socioeconomic evangelizing. (Several scenes, among them Eliza’s perfectly plummy display of lower-class thought at Mrs. Higgins’ soiree, are staged like small performances, with one character holding forth as if from a stage and the others lined up like an audience.) Still, the production moves with the speed of a tongue twister, occasionally and intentionally pausing — as when Eliza, backed by delicately trilling piano, wraps herself into a splendid sari for the lineup of parties that will win Higgins’ bet. Of course, he will later take all the credit, finally catapulting his living, breathing social construct into the fury his arrogant behavior deserves. And yes, there will be the savage hurling of slippers.
Part of the reason Bedlam is able to pull off its spare, rambunctious approach to the classics is that, as director, Tucker is a master of folding the philosophic and emotion innards of a piece into all the horsing around. And, for the most part, his actors have honed their performances — and have drunk enough Red Bull — to pull it off. In particular here, Grace Bernardo is deliciously blunt as Higgins’ prim but bullying housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (she also plays a more nervous maid and Clara Eynsford Hill). And James Patrick Nelson makes a kindly if patrician Pickering, a silken contrast to Tucker’s abrasive if lively Higgins.
I don’t know what is gained by having Eliza snarl a few of her first-act lines in Hindi, but Sharma is terrific in the role, possessed of a natural elegance and conveying all the poignancy of a socially displaced person with nowhere to go. Diminutive and balletic, she brings a clear and quiet grandeur to the character’s assertion, with a nod to Pickering’s courtesy and a ding to Higgins’ bad grace, that “the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
To be sure, “Pygmalion” behaves less melodiously than “My Fair Lady” — and one may feel a yen for the songs, especially when Higgins declares that he has “grown accustomed” to Eliza’s “voice and appearance.” But Bedlam treats Shaw’s entertainingly provocative, still pertinent libretto like the sparkling, far from humbly born treatise it is.
“Bedlam's Pygmalion” runs at Central Square Theater though March 3.
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