Strong direction and acting makes Compass Rose's 'Pygmalion' a fair lady indeed

For The Baltimore Sun

Compass Rose Theater is capping its 2016-17 season with George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" in a production that's updated to the 1960s, yet remains timely in exposing British class structure — and the battles of the sexes.

The show, continuing through May 21, achieved its most memorable incarnation as "My Fair Lady" with Lerner and Loewe's compatible score.

Producer Lucinda Merry-Browne invited Baltimore-based director James Knipple to make his Compass Rose directorial debut with "Pygmalion." It's a winning decision, as Knipple invests Shaw's 1913 comedy with fresh contemporary insights.

Knipple illuminates characters of varied social strata, from upper class gentry to lowly flower sellers attempting to better their lot. His expansive vision pervades several aspects of this production, essentially a tribute to Shaw's enduring theater treasure.

The choice of African American actor Mariea Terrell in role of Eliza Doolittle adds an intriguing dimension while presenting structure to century-old class barriers for Shaw's ever-ambitious heroine. The result heightens Eliza's inexhaustible energy fueling a determination to rise above all challenge.

Compass Rose's "Pygmalion" is staged traditionally, confined to the main stage level. The opening scene reveals theater audiences departing in a summer storm, largely ignoring flower sellers as they search for cabs to transport them home.

Outstanding among Cockney flower sellers is Eliza Doolittle, who approaches them assuring "I'm a good girl" — certifying her legitimate flower-seller status.

Taking notes on varied speech patterns is Professor Henry Higgins, who joins Eliza's potential flower customer Colonel Pickering in conversation. Higgins' interest in Eliza's distinctive speech results in Pickering wagering on Higgins ability to teach Eliza to speak well enough to transform her within weeks from flower seller into a convincing duchess.

Actor Cameron McNary's portrayal of Professor Henry Higgins reveals an awkwardly attractive naivete that softens the character's obsessive persona. Confirmed bachelor Higgins is intent on improving Eliza's speech by removing all Cockney traces before replacing them with a genteel, upper-middle class speech pattern devoid of slang.

McNary's Higgins comically portrays his ignorance in dealing with young women, and his inability to recognize his insulting behavior toward Eliza. Henry's confused annoyance at Eliza's hurt reaction to his lack of praise after her triumphant society debut fuels their major confrontation.

Terrell fully inhabits the role of Eliza, transitioning from feisty flower girl to diligent student intent on absorbing every lesson that could free her from poverty.

Her Eliza expresses immense joy at grasping proper pronunciation, disappointment when unable to recite a new phrase properly — and a torrent of anger at Higgins' lack of praise for her accomplishments.

Skilled actor Terrell sensitively interacts with all — deferential to unfailingly respectful Colonial Pickering and with camaraderie to Higgins' mother. In interchanges with her own opportunistic father, Eliza projects a comfortable familiarity free of illusions.

E. Martin Ealy plays Doolittle, Eliza's father, with confidence and comedic flair as he is plucked from his comfortable obscurity into being a respected "most original thinker" lecturer.

James Bunzli invests Pickering with an inherent gentle courtesy and a passion for his Indian cultural studies, which he shares with Higgins while becoming firmly assertive in how her is behaving toward Eliza.

Higgins' strong, genteel and charming mother is fully realized by Janet C. Preston who also establishes easy rapport with Eliza. And Higgins housekeeper is flawlessly portrayed by Annapolis favorite Dianne Hood — who has brightened countless local productions.

The Eynsford Hill family matriarch is well played by Rebecca Dreyfuss. Her obedient son Freddy bis played by Omar Said, who conveys his besotted fascination by Eliza; and Freddy's sister Clara is brilliantly played by seventh-grader and Compass Rose Young Actors Studio member Isabel Messina.

This excellent cast is supported by a strong technical team including lighting designer Marianne Meadows and costume designer Renee Vergauwen.

"Pygmalion" continues through May 21 at Compass Rose Theatter, 49 Spa Road, Annapolis. For tickets call the box office at 410-980-6662 or purchase online at compassrosetheater.org.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°