Have you ever been in so far above your depth that you could barely function? Of course you have; and those are great learning experiences, but you still pity the other people who had to watch. It's no fun to tell you that's what it appears to be like to have been cast in Mesa Community College's production of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, but in this case we're getting the bad news out of the way up front.
The show has fine moments and interesting aspects, too, but because it announces itself as being about the precise analysis of human speech and how dialect stratifies Victorian society, the reality of the ensemble is a failure so meta that it's hard to push against. The opening scene sets the tone: a handbasket full of people the audience can barely understand, taking forever to ramble to theatrical Hell. (If you think it might help to read the play before seeing it, there's a version here.)
The play is really about (as Actors Theatre likes to say) more than just language, but language is what the author gives us to get there, and it feels as though most of the actors have been disciplined so thoroughly in the pursuit of accuracy in their various dialects that they hesitate to move or breathe without advance permission. And that makes it hard to act.
The problem may be something else, or it may be more than one thing. For instance, the playing area is epic in its breadth, and, as you can see from the photo above, the players appear to have been directed by David Barker to use a whole bunch of it, no matter how few of them are onstage. It takes more experienced actors than these to assert themselves amid all that empty space (and Jeff Thomson's impressive set) and still communicate human feelings.
About the set -- it's useful, technically splendid, and lovely, and the cast is choreographed to be charming while changing it back and forth from Henry Higgins' office/lab to his mother's drawing room, but it's so much better than anything else going on in the venue that it's distracting. This means that all I've been thinking about since I saw the show is why Mrs. Higgins' home is so stylized and spare that it seems to be from a completely different play than the familiar cluttered stuffiness of her son's digs.
It's deliberate and not a weird collaborative misstep, I've concluded, and it has to do with Higgins' tendency to rely on science and reason, crowding out the emotional intelligence necessary for real success, contrasted with his mother's graceful embrace of polite behavior not for its superficial advantages but because it's kind and, in its own way, rational, based on common sense. (In other words, Mrs. Higgins -- who, I must disclose, is played by a close friend of mine -- is intuitively devoted to the comfort and pleasure of others and doesn't need the crutch of masses of books, files, and recordings to support her intentions.)
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It's when they pivot on that crucial difference between the characters that the performances work. And they do work at times, especially those of the leads who play Higgins, his mother, his friend Pickering, and their protégée Eliza Doolittle. Yup, this is the play that became the beloved musical My Fair Lady, with much of its original complicated, witty, and poetic dialogue intact. That dialogue is done a great disservice here, but the occasional nugget of emotional truth bursts through.
Higgins' formidable housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, is played by a man named Nathan Lewis, and he's the one entity on stage who seems impervious to the miasma enveloping the others. Perhaps because he's cross-dressing and has to expend a supernatural amount of energy, his appearances were a treat.
Pygmalion continues through Saturday, February 4, at Mesa Community College's Theater Outback, 1833 West Southern Avenue. Tickets are $9 to $13; order here or call 480-461-7172.