NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – Canadian director Peter Hinton, whose retina-burning productions of “Cabaret” and “Lady Windemere’s Fan” at the Shaw Festival in recent seasons have raised the institution’s already sky-high bar for visual allure, has been let loose on George Bernard Shaw’s most popular play, “Pygmalion.”
This is risky business for the Shaw Festival, whose old-school patrons and some of the critics who represent them have not historically taken very well to overly assertive directorial “visions” for classic productions. But with his curiously cinematic “Pygmalion” – part PBS “Frontline,” part “Frasier” and part “Devil Wears Prada” – Hinton has achieved a modest success by staying largely true to Shaw’s class critique while pushing it through a fine 21st-century filter.
The play, based on the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his creation and brings it to life, tells the story of lower-class flower girl Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, the crabby phonetics professor who molds her into a social success with far more class than himself. (He sets a low bar.) The story is deeply woven into popular culture, having inspired countless adaptations ranging from the great 1956 musical “My Fair Lady” to the execrable 1999 film “She’s All That.”
In Hinton’s production, Eliza is played by the irresistible Harveen Shandu opposite Patrick McManus’ thoroughly insufferable Henry Higgins. The action mostly plays out against a backdrop of computer screens and impossibly high towers of books in Higgins’ London study and in the pristine and posh surroundings of Mrs. Higgins’ couture showroom, all of which is the sophisticated doing of the gifted set designer Eo Sharp.
While the use of screens and modern furniture makes Hinton’s production look utterly contemporary – at one point, Higgins’ put-upon maid (Mary Haney) appears on screen via Skype – he has not made significant changes to the dialogue, and certainly not the plot. He has used Shaw’s original 1914 text, which may be surprising to those more familiar with “My Fair Lady” or other productions of “Pygmalion,” which include his later revisions.
What lends this production its modern edge, beyond Shaw’s timeless critique about the artificiality of class distinctions, is Hinton’s insertion, between the first and second act, of a BBC report on the newly emerging classes of the 21st century. That choice at first seems crass or jarring, something perhaps more appropriate for a college economics lecture than a Shaw Festival production, but it does lend the rest of the play a clearer sense of relevance the current battle against income inequality in which all but the 1 percent are now tied up.
Higgins, in Hinton’s universe, clearly stands in for the perceived blindness and disregard of the ruling class. In McManus’ hands, Higgins is just about the worst human being imaginable, thinking himself so gifted and privileged that he can treat other people as mere tools or means to an end. His tousled hair and sloppy manner are perfectly calibrated here, and with every move – as intended – you like him less.
Shandu, on the other hand, has all the qualities a perfect Eliza Dootlittle ought to have: Barely controllable sass, keen intelligence, a vulnerability occasionally visible beneath her tough outer shell. Her delivery of the most famous line in the show during the celebrated scene in which she’s demonstrating her newfound elocution – changed to North American parlance here for greater effect – sent one of the wildest instantaneous eruptions of laughter I’ve heard through the Festival Theatre crowd on opening night.
Standout performances also come from Jeff Meadows as the mild-mannered but aloof Colonel Pickering, Donna Belleville as the incredulous Mrs. Doolittle and Peter Krantz as Eliza’s father Alfred, whose lamentations about being dragged unwillingly into the responsibilities of middle-class life remain a strange conservative note in Shaw’s otherwise progressive play.
In the pantheon of recent Hinton hits at the Shaw Festival, this “Pygmalion” doesn’t quite rise to the same heights as “Cabaret” or “Lady Windemere’s Fan.”
But it is a solid show, which demonstrates cleverly enough that class, like race, is a fiction made up of artificial distinctions that are as easy to build as they are to destroy.