• From left, Anthony Fusco, Catherine Castellanos and Irene Lucio in "Pygmalion"
    © California Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne

Pygmalion, Cal Shakes

The cast in this fast and funny revival couldn't be better at underlining Shaw's acerbic wit.

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda, Calif.

July 30-Aug. 24, 2014

Once upon a time there was a Greek sculptor who, so legend has it, created a statue so beautiful that he fell madly in love with it and, with the help of the omnipresent gods, infused her with life. Trouble is, the living Galatea — for so the lovely creature was called — had a few ideas of her own.

Not so different from what happens with Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” named after that disappointed Greek. Of course, we never really know what the quirky Professor Higgins feels for his masterpiece (Shaw purposely left the ending ambiguous) but, he notes, in a line directly lifted from the script for a song in the show’s most famous iteration, “My Fair Lady,” he has “grown accustomed to her face.”

And that’s about as romantic as Henry Higgins gets. If ever a role was meant for the talented Anthony Fusco, this is it, combining his bull-in-the-china-shop bluster and acerbic wit. And Henry meets his match in Irene Lucio’s Eliza, the Cockney “guttersnipe” flower seller that the professor picks up outside Covent Garden on a bet that he can pass her off as a duchess by teaching her how to speak properly. Like Galatea, Eliza has her own agenda. She wants to rise above her station which, in class-conscious London in the Victorian era, was no easy task. Problem with that is, once Higgins turns her into a lady — or his version of one — where will she go? What will she do? She’s not fit for either the gutter or the drawing room. Never have I been struck so hard by the social implications of Higgins’ little “experiment” as I was at Jonathan Moscone’s fast and funny revival at Cal Shakes.

Not only are the principals excellent, but there are some standout performances in supporting roles. The usually upright and dignified James Carpenter plays against type as Eliza’s ne’er-do-well father, Alfred P. Doolittle, who is not above selling his daughter for five pounds like so much chattel (which about sums up the position of women at the time). Even Higgins is shocked: “Have you no morals, man?” he asks. “Can’t afford ‘em, guv’nor” comes the answer. Carpenter is hilarious, especially once he comes into some money and is rudely thrust into the detested middle class.

Also playing against type is the great clown Sharon Lockwood as Henry’s very proper and very liberated mother. Catherine Castellanos is a paragon of housekeepers and L. Peter Callender is sympathetic as Col. Pickering, Higgins’ housemate and partner in crime.

The fact that Eliza is “so deliciously low” in Act I gives her Act II transformation all the more impact. And, aided by Anna Oliver’s exquisite ball gown, Lucio makes the most of it. If this production has one slight flaw it might be Annie Smart’s extremely functional set design, which is a little heavy on rose patterns. I’m not sure Shaw meant us to actually see the roses. Feminist that he was, I suspect he would rather his audiences would wake up and smell them.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”