Acadia Repertory Theatre’s production of “Pygmalion” infuses Bernard Shaw’s romance with modern #MeToo sensibilities that makes the playwright’s class criticism and portrait of female independence relevant more 100 years after it first was staged.
Shaw based his story on the Greek myth of the same name in which a sculptor falls in love with a female statue he creates. In the play, Professor Henry Higgins, a master of British accents, bets Colonel Pickering, an expert in Indian dialects, that under their tutelage a cockney flower girl can be transformed into a duchess at ease in polite society.
This production in Somesville sticks with Shaw’s original ending where Eliza asserts her independence from Higgins, throws his slippers — which he’s always asking her to find — in his face and walks out the door. Higgins tells her, “I like you like this,” but she still leaves. The playwright never intended for Henry and Eliza to end up as a married couple. Shaw wanted him to respect her feisty independence.
Director Michael Kissin of St. Paul, Minnesota, embraces Shaw’s feminist and anti-class views. He also emphasizes Shaw’s dialogue, which is as full of character as it is of ideas. “Pygmalion” is also very funny, especially when Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, shows up.
Dustin Whitehead is younger than most actors who play Higgins. He gives the professor a charming enthusiasm that allows the audience to root for his transformation of Eliza from dirty flower girl to enchantress. The actor, based in North Carolina, delightfully portrays Higgins’ lack of understanding about women think and feel.
Mary Paola, a graduate of Mount Desert Island High School and student at Purchase College in New York, gives a mature and nuanced performance. She endearingly portrays Eliza’s delight at having a bath with hot water, enchants a young suitor with a story about her aunt being “done in” by something other than influenza, and asserts her independence from Higgins with grace and aplomb.
Whitehead and Paola seem to tango effortlessly with Shaw’s language and ideas. They also give off a spark of sexual energy but staying true to the playwright’s intent gives “Pygmalion” a depth that makes it relevant in a society that created the #metoo movement out of necessity.
Much of the comedy and commentary on class is provided by Bernard Hope, who plays Eliza’s father. The British-born, Bangor-based actor captures every conniving ounce of Alfred’s common man con. He is superb at elucidating Shaw’s distaste for Britain’s rigid class system. Hope hysterically portrays Alfred’s distaste for the responsibilities that come with suddenly being middle class.
Frank Bachman, theater director at MDI HIgh School, as Colonel Pickering and Cheryl Willis, Acadia Rep’s artistic director, as Henry’s mother, along with the rest of the cast, embrace Shaw’s themes with style and panache. Willis is especially good at portraying a mother’s exasperation with her grown child.
Acadia Rep’s production leaves Eliza’s romantic fate in doubt, but Paola’s feisty performance assures theatergoers that the woman’s future will be one she shapes herself, not one shaped for her by men.
“Pygmalion” will be performed by Acadia Repertory Theatre through July 22 at the Mount Desert Masonic Lodge in Somesville on Mount Desert Island. For information, call 244-7260 or visit acadiarep.com.
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