Bedlam’s Pygmalion erupts out of nowhere, a surprise sprung on the audience as we wait in what seems like a holding area — a narrow space hung with a few coat pegs, a handful of chairs lined along either side. Turns out we’re on a crowded London street, sometime in the early twentieth century, about to watch the spitfire flower girl Eliza Doolittle meet the priggish phonetician Henry Higgins.
“You were born in Delhi, but lived in Lisson Grove,” Higgins says, diagnosing her accent. His presumptuousness raises her hackles. He also pricks up our ears: What’s this Delhi business? George Bernard Shaw didn’t write that.
No, he didn’t, but this small textual edit is an easy way into Eric Tucker’s potent and persuasive staging, which gives us an Indian Eliza. Smashingly played by Vaishnavi Sharma (from New Delhi, she’s a veteran of Bedlam’s The Seagull and Sense & Sensibility), this Eliza wants to lift herself out of poverty in a society where the strikes against her are markers not only of class but also of race and origin. The accent she seeks to replace with cultivated British speech isn’t lower-class English; it’s foreign.
That opening scene probably doesn’t work the way Tucker intends. The space is too crammed with bodies and too warm if you’ve had to keep your coat on. (There’s a reason compulsory coat and bag checks are par for the course in immersive theater.) Audience members get jostled as the actors push their way through, and the sight lines are dreadful; from the chairs, where some older spectators sat, the view is of the crowd’s backsides. It’s enough to make a person grumpy. But relief comes once we enter the main playing space — a sedate one by Tucker’s standards, with the audience seated in a horseshoe around the stage. Aside from a few chairs that come and go, John McDermott’s pared-down period set stays put. There’s no scenery gliding on rollers across the stage.
Tucker, who plays Higgins, puts the show’s emphasis on the acting, and in fact some of the most powerful moments are wordless, Eliza or Higgins alone. Together, though, they are fire and ice: she bold, impassioned, and prone to outrage, but with an abuse survivor’s vulnerable, reflexive fear of violence; he callous, proper (except that he’s a slob), and even more repressed than his upbringing taught him to be.
Sharma, in an exquisitely dexterous performance, is more fun to watch for much of the play — raw and vibrant, exultant and unignorable. When Eliza comes to Higgins in her grubby, tattered clothes and a brimmed hat caked in coal dust, asking if he will teach her to “talk more genteel,” her defiance borders on tears. He is a pompous jerk, almost unbearable, but his well-mannered friend Colonel Pickering (a lovely Nigel Gore) is a likable presence, kind to Eliza. Once her transformation begins under Higgins’s tutelage, she starts dressing like a lady and luxuriates, enchantingly, in the pleasure of it. (The costumes, fresh and gorgeous, are by Charlotte Palmer-Lane.)
Shaw was adamant that Pygmalion is not a love story in which the refined Eliza walks off into the sunset with Higgins, her creator. Miffed that directors felt otherwise, Shaw appended a short prose sequel to the play, making the characters’ fates explicit. Tucker prefers ambiguity on that score, emphasizing the sexual heat between Eliza and Higgins. You get the sense that she knows her own value too well to cheapen it by marrying him, and that any union between them would be turbulent at best. Emotionally illiterate and set in his ways, the guy is a real fixer-upper.
And yet. When the transformed Eliza, furious at Higgins’s disrespect of her, disappears from his house, he is utterly undone — fidgety, panicked, sweaty, his façade crumbling, exposing him at last as an actual human being. Higgins cannot bear the thought of being without Eliza, and Tucker plays this masterfully.
There is one distraction that intrudes. Tucker has a fondness for casting men as women, which can work fine but doesn’t always. That it misfires here with a significant character is not the fault of the actor, Edmund Lewis, a Bedlam member who plays Higgins’s mother straightforwardly, with no wig, no makeup, no stuffed bra. It smacks of sexism anyway: the smirking tradition of putting a large man in a dress to play an unattractive woman, like Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Mrs. Higgins exists, in part, to provide a female perspective to her son. Her words don’t carry much weight this way.
Still, this is a Pygmalion that may make you feel for Eliza as you have never felt before. As her father (Rajesh Bose) notes, Americans love to believe “that they recognize and respect merit in every class of life, however humble.” But we sure do see race. At the end of her lessons, a distraught Eliza demands of Higgins, “What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?”
And we look at her — elegant, intelligent, poor, brown — and think: Oh, no. It’s the early 1900s in England. The whole culture is stacked against her. How does she get around that?