Playwright: George Bernard Shaw. At: Bohemian Theatre Ensemble and Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150 or www.bohotheatre.com or www.stagelefttheatre.com; $25. Runs through: Feb. 10
Why produce Pygmalion when you can get largely the same situations and all those glorious Lerner and Loewe tunes in My Fair Lady? I'm sure many theater companies opt to ignore George Bernard Shaw's 1912 comic drama in favor of the beloved 1956 Broadway musical, since the latter is sure to put more bums in seats.
Yet Stage Left Theatre and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble have teamed up to honor Shaw's Pygmalion with a 100th-anniversary production at Theater Wit. Despite its age, Pygmalion still feels vital and timely since Shaw's dialogue positively crackles with wit and stinging observations. Diehard My Fair Lady fans will definitely notice how much of Alan Jay Lerner's My Fair Lady script is directly cribbed from Shaw, and how Shaw's original ending feels much more appropriate for our times.
Director Vance Smith has corralled an engaging cast together for Pygmalion.
One major way that he's puts a different spin on the piece is the casting of Mouzam Makkar as Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl who seeks a better place in life through elocution lessons. Although Makkar plays the role straight and makes for a fetching Eliza, her presence also might also bring up Britain's blemished imperialist past to an audience member's mind now and then.
As her controlling teacher, Steve O'Connell definitely plays up the rude and haughty bad-boy qualities of Professor Henry Higgins. With his lanky frame and jangling pocket change, O'Connell as Higgins swaggers into scenes and plops himself down without much decorum.
Makkar and O'Connell are surrounding by strong supporting players, like Mark Pracht's fast-talking cockney Mr. Doolittle and Sandy Elias' dithery, but caring, Col. Pickering. Some of the other performers appear too young to be age appropriate, like Lisa Herceg as Mrs. Higgins. But Herceg nearly walks away with the show with her curt and commandeering performance as a sensibly haughty matron who rightfully knows when to put her linguist son in his place.
Framing the action is Eleanor Kahn's fragmental set of oversize wallpaper patterns and period furniture, which is more suggestive than literal when it comes to creating London in 1912. Kristen Ahern's period costumes are also a delight to gaze upon.
If there is one complaint, it's that many of the actors' British dialects waver in and out. For a piece focusing so heavily on class differentiating dialects, it is a glaring flaw.
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble and Stage Left Theatre's strong production of Pygmalion should definitely find a local audience among die-hard PBS aficionados, particularly with the current craze surrounding Downton Abbey. And remember, without Pygmalion, there would have been no My Fair Lady, so pay some homage to the brilliant original.