Pygmalion at CalShakes

Last week, Dave and I saw Pygmalion at California Shakespeare Theater. It’s a wonderful production.

What was so remarkable to us is that we’ve both seen the play several times, including a very good small production at Butterfield 8 less than a year ago (I also saw Peter O’Toole and Amanda Plummer on Broadway back in the 1980s), and we have seen the movie with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller several times, and then of course we have also seen My Fair Lady both on stage and on screen a few times; and yet in this new production there were a lot of new discoveries for us along the way, especially in the second half.

Anthony Fusco’s Higgins is freshly thought out, it isn’t much at all like Howard’s or Harrison’s or O’Toole’s, and yet it’s a completely convincing characterization that, for me anyway, held a number of new insights into the character and his part in the story. Same with Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle: she never once seemed in any way to be in the shadow of Wendy Hiller or Julie Andrews or anyone else, but gives a thoroughly fresh interpretation of the role that works well, is completely in keeping with the play, and yet frequently had me reacting with surprise to some new reading she gave to a line or new shade of color she gave to a moment. Wonderful stuff.

The whole cast is terrific. And James Carpenter just about stops the show twice with his two brilliant scenes as Alfred Doolittle. Jonathan Moscone’s stage direction is fresh and inventive, and entirely in keeping with Shaw’s intentions. (He does fiddle with the text of the play a bit, trimming some scenes and making use of a few things from Shaw’s screenplay for the movie; it works well.) Shaw’s famously unresolved ending, which neither the movie nor the musical saw fit to follow, works beautifully here — after the Butterfield 8 production, I was saying to friends that it was the first time I’d seen a production that followed Shaw’s ending and made it feel like the perfectly right and inevitable ending to the story; this production now makes two times I have seen this happen.

One more week. We’d love to get back for one more look, but I don’t think it’s in either our schedule or our budget. I highly recommend this production. Yum yum yum.

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Theater Rhino’s The Habit of Art

Dave and I saw an early preview of Theater Rhinoceros’s production of The Habit of Art at the Eureka Theater last Friday evening.

This is a fairly recent comedy by Alan Bennett, about an imagined meeting between Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden late in their lives. Auden is living in semi-retirement at Oxford; he’s bored and feeling like a has-been, and he’s eager to find something new and exciting to work on, even if it’s dangerous; Britten, on the other hand, is still busy and much sought after, and he has such a project — he’s starting work on an opera based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice — but he’s skittish about the subject matter, a man in late middle age who develops an obsession with an underage boy he sees at a hotel while vacationing in Venice. Britten fears the public might turn on him, and he wants to make the boy older, closer to adulthood, and to present the older man’s attraction as one of chaste appreciation of classical beauty. (Britten is a homosexual and a teacher of boy singers; he feels an infatuation for some of his underage students himself, and his behavior with some of them — not overtly sexual but not entirely innocent either — has already led to private gossip, though never a public scandal; so the very thing that draws him toward the subject matter also cuts uncomfortably close to home.) Auden urges Britten to be honest about both the boy’s age and the sexual element in the attraction. Auden would love to write the libretto; Britten has already chosen to work with a writer who is much less talented but will give him the less dangerous, more comfortable libretto that he wants.

Except that it’s more complicated than that, because The Habit of Art is really about a rehearsal of a play about this imagined meeting, so there are layers of reality that interrupt each other, with the actors breaking character frequently to argue with the playwright or to complain about the director’s choices or to ask the stage manager where they’re supposed to be standing now.

Dave and I saw this production at Z Space a couple of months ago and enjoyed it a lot; we’d meant to go back for a second look and weren’t able to get around to it, so we were very happy to see that it’s getting another month or so of performances at the Eureka Theater. The acting is really terrific. The play itself is very funny, some of it in a very silly, farcical way, some of it affectionately satirizing the foibles and weaknesses of artists; and yet at the same time it’s a sort of rambling meditation on how to make art when you are past the years of your greatest glory but you still have the habit. When you’re much venerated for what you’re already done, working in your own shadow, do you repeat what has worked well for you in the past, or attempt something that’s exciting and new but dicey and that could fail very badly, maybe not just embarrassing you but even damaging your reputation? The theme echoes and re-echoes in subtle ways through all the various levels — the play-within-a-play, the actors’ complaints about the writing, the playwright’s complaints about the direction, the stage manager’s attempts to soothe everyone and keep the rehearsal on track.

It’s a dense, thoughtful, complex, and very funny play. If you’re a fan of plays by Tom Stoppand and Caryl Churchill, you’ll probably like this, too. If you’re on a tight budget like us, discounted tickets are available through Goldstar.