Opening Nights: Pygmalion

Seattle Shakes gets everything right.

The more things change, the more they don't. In a world where an all-male panel can advise a congressional committee on contraception and a proposed Virginia law would require "transvaginal" ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, the century-year-old Pygmalion appears more timely than The Help.

In this Seattle Shakespeare Company production, director Jeff Steitzer readily accepts that Pygmalion (originally a sculpture that comes to life) has its own Hollywood baggage: The stage lights rise to the strains of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady. Then playwright George Bernard Shaw (A. Bryan Humphrey) strides onstage to stop the music and launch his rather more droll comedy instead.

As you know: Petulant linguist Henry Higgins (Mark Anders) bets his pal Col. Pickering (R. Hamilton Wright) that he can transform bedraggled flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Jennifer Lee Taylor) into a genteel lady capable of mingling with aristocrats. Their course is a bumpy one, because although Pickering treats Eliza as a lady (no matter her social standing), Higgins sees humanity as a parade of simpletons worthy only of experimentation and study. In the end, Eliza simply outgrows the man who invented her, and walks out more mature than he'll ever be.

What makes this a tale worth telling yet again is Steitzer's mischief with the material. Not only does Shaw keep returning to hasten along his two-and-a-half-hour comedy of manners, but there's a distinct Monty Python vibe. Several characters have Terry Jones' female shriek (think of the Messiah's mum Mandy in Life of Brian) down to a T. Then there's Humphrey's other job, as Eliza's con-man father, who bears a not-so-slight resemblance to John Cleese, all mock dignity and puffed-up self-importance.

Crucially, in a play where class difference is signaled—and enforced—by linguistic nuance, the cast puts over the various British accents, from Cockney to Oxbridge. Words spill out in endless variety, speed, and pitch, and Higgins delights in pinning down everyone's birthplace with his uncanny ear.

Seattle Shakes leaves not one element out of place—the acting, lighting, and spectacular costumes provide a pristine snow-globe peek into Victorian England. Jason Phillips' scenery and projections provide just enough backdrop to allow Deane Middleton's extravagant costume designs room to breathe. (Not only are the fashions beautiful to admire, but the actors wear them rather than the other way around.) There are so many ways that a show like Pygmalion can go wrong. This one gets them all right.

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