THEATER | Ten Thousand Things present a "My Fair Lady" with loverly acting, but plain singing

Kate Eifrig and Steve Hendrickson in My Fair Lady. Photo courtesy Ten Thousand Things.

On April 30, I had the opportunity to watch a performance of My Fair Lady that Ten Thousand Things presented at Wayside House, a substance abuse treatment center for women. Going in to the show, I had reservations about the choice of play for an audience of women who, besides chemical abuse, may have experienced destructive relationships and physical and emotional abuse. After all, the musical, which is based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, has all kinds of references to abusive relationships, both physical and verbal. I wondered if the experience of watching such a play would be traumatic for some of the women.

Of course I have no idea if my suspicions were true, but the women seemed for the most part to really enjoy the production. Aside from the two or three people who scowled with their arms crossed the whole show, almost everyone else was laughing and enjoying themselves. Perhaps the British accents and century-old setting provided enough psychological distance so that the women could enjoy the witty banter without necessarily seeing how it might relate to modern relationship issues.

my fair lady, playing through may 30 at the minnesota opera center. for tickets ($25) and information, see tenthousandthings.org.

Basically, My Fair Lady is a Cinderella story. Eliza Doolittle (Kate Eifrig) begins the play as a flower seller on the streets of London. She has a drunken father (Luverne Seifert) who beats her, and she speaks with a Cockney accent. She is happened upon by two high-class gentlemen who make fun of her. One of the gentlemen, Henry Higgins (Steve Hendrickson), boasts that he can turn her into a lady by teaching her to speak proper English. Eliza later arrives at Henry's home to request speech lessons, which prompts him to make a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering (Kimberly Richardson) that he can transform her into a well-spoken lady so that no one would know that she was ever a flower seller. After a struggle, they succeed in the task—only to find that Eliza doesn't appreciate them taking all the credit for her hard work.

There's a lot of banter, but Henry never lays a hand on Eliza. This is in contrast to her father, who advises Henry: "If you have any trouble with her you just give her a few licks of the strap." Henry does, however, belittle Eliza, dismiss her, and does not give her credit for her accomplishments. He calls her names and behaves in other ways that would in modern times be considered verbally abusive. She stands up to him and ultimately abandons him, and it's a wonderfully powerful moment, which is then negated by the fact that she goes back to him. The last line of the play has always really bothered me. Eliza has returned, and Henry requests that Eliza fetch his slippers for him. The original Pygmalion has an afterword that states that Eliza ends up marrying another character, Freddy, which I find to be a much more satisfying ending. Freddy, though a doofus—and also a stalker—at least is a better alternative to Henry.

But enough nitpicky feminist hair-splitting. As I said, the women at Wayside Center did seem to enjoy the play, and I do think it is great that Ten Thousand Things is providing these theatrical experiences to people who might not otherwise get to see plays.

As for the production itself, it is fairly well-done. Kate Eifrig portrays Eliza with a spunky fire, and Steve Hendrickson, as usual, is charming and engaging in his role. Kimberly Richardson, Bradley Greenwald, and Luverne Seifert each play multiple roles with quirky energy that keeps the play moving at a nice clip.

One unfortunate aspect is the music. With the exception of the glorious singer Greenwald (the entire audience was swooning during his rendition of "On the Street Where you Live"), the cast is made up of actors as opposed to singers. For Hendrickson's part it doesn't matter as much, but Eliza is actually a very challenging singing role and Eifrig, though she has the acting chops for the part, just doesn't cut it musically.

My Fair Lady runs at the Opera Center from May 7-30. It's definitely worth checking out, although I highly recommend seeing one of their free performances. There's an energy that is so much more alive at TTT shows when they perform at alternative venues. The audience tends to engage more vocally and physically with the events on stage, which is a refreshing change of pace from the politely unresponsive audiences usually found at the theater.

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    Sheila Regan's picture
    Sheila Regan

    Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.

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    Condescension!

    What a condescending review. You think it's "great that Ten Thousand Things is providing these theatrical experiences to people who might not otherwise get to see plays" but you worry that they may be traumatized by the experience? My friend, they've been through a lot more than you can imagine--your baseless "concern" for their well-being is misplaced and rude. Would you really "worry" about female domestic abuse victims in Guthrie audiences (of which there surely are some) being traumatized by "My Fair Lady?" Of course not; that's silly. You would clearly consider them intelligent enough to put up a boundary between themselves and the play, but not these women. Plase, direct your condescending "concern" elsewhere.

    Not to mention you clearly have no idea what a Ten Thousand Things musical is all about. It's not "unfortunate" that the singing is poor, it's a conscious choice to pick good actors over good singers, and it's what makes TTT's "My Fair Lady" transcend your "feminist hair-splitting" to become a play about the complex themes of gender and domstic violence rather than one that glorifies it. The women at the chemical abuse center were smart enough to pick up on it; too bad you weren't.

    Condescension, part II

    Whoops, I missed this.

    "Perhaps the British accents and century-old setting provided enough psychological distance so that the women could enjoy the witty banter without necessarily seeing how it might relate to modern relationship issues."

    I feel like no comment needs to be made besides the obvious: how could the TC Daily Planet let this ignorant, patronizing review be published?

    Condescension to the Audience

    As Artistic Director of Ten Thousand Things theater, I rarely respond to reviews, but I would like to ask that in the future, if tcdailyplanet chooses to send a critic to one of our performances for non-traditional audiences, they choose someone who will afford the audience the same respect for their intelligence, imagination, life experience and crtical thinking skills as they would extend to any paying audience at the Guthrie.  Our audiences have enough judgement dumped on them without having to be judged by theater critics as well!

    I must add that I am surprised your critic, whom I would assume would be at least a little bit informed about theater in the Twin Cites, would be ignorant of TTT's strong reputation for taking classic plays, whether Shakespeare, Greek tradgedy or chestnut musicals,  and viewing them through a feminist lens -- and that she was unable to pick up on this sensibility fiercely at play in the work of the director and actors in the show -- something the all-female audience was easily able to do.

    Sincerely,

    Michelle Hensley

     

     

    A Fair Assessment

    Wow.  Normally I too refrain from commenting online - especially since I did not see the show - but I really feel this can't be left as it stands.  So few of us have perfected the art of clearly expressing our views with the written word alone, without aid of voice, body language, and a certain human connection that face-to-face discourse affords us, and I am fully in the imperfect pool.  However, it occurs to me that this sort of impassioned response is exactly what theatre strives to ignite.  After all, this production does face the layers of feminism, social standing, power, discrimination, substance abuse, and more.

    I wish some of the audience members would comment.

    Unfortunately, without seeing the show, I can only offer this:

    A) I appreciate Sheila Regan's assessment, as a reader of tcdailyplanet.  As a modern woman, I have often been frustrated by the lightness with which this play is commonly treated, carelessly turning Higgins's mistreatment into a joke.  I'm glad someone said it.

    B) As the product of a family wrought with abuse and addictions of all types, I do not find Regan's concern insulting - I find it appropriate.  There is a difference between seeking out a performance, and having one brought to you.  There is a difference between the wall one puts up in public, and the vulnerability one allows in the company of understanding peers at a treatment center.  There is a difference between 2 weeks separation from a situation, and 2 years, 20 years, etc.  The criticism may or may not be wrong, but it is certainly not out of line.

    In my view, it's not uncalled

    In my view, it's not uncalled for --- a critic can question programmatic choices and come into a performance with assumptions regarding the audience.  Sheila identified them as assumptions in the review.  This is a critic, not an arbitrator, not a social worker.  

    If we want people to review shows, I think we need to assume that judgement is going to be passed on all aspects of the experience. 

    And for readers who may not know much about Shaw... I think it's fine to editorialize--and react to loaded material. 

    Isn't a reaction what we're looking for?

    Always a fan of feather ruffling!--Scott Reynolds

    It is somewhat surprising

    That a theater person and feminist failed to appreciate the catharsis that TTT productions attempt to elicit in their audiences.  The classic example, of course, is the first American production of Waiting For Godot.  Would she think that watching that play would be overly traumatic for an audience of inmates?

    Great review, Sheila!

    You can disagree with her review without the personal attacks, people.  Good grief!

    The problem with the review

    The problem with the review is not Ms. Regan's assessment of the play from a feminist perspective, but her assumptions that the audience was unable to comprehend anything but the "Briitish acccents" and "witty banter,"  It's OK to come into a TTT show with assumptions about the audience, but to put them in print in such a patronizing way is not. Neither is it, in fact, OK to pass judgement on a group of peoples' intelligence and ability to comprehend a work of art based entirely on their class or situation, as Ms. Regan clearly did. Ms. Hensley put it well--it's simply a lack of respect. The same lack of respect ("belitting and dissmissing", as Ms. Regan put it) in fact, that Henry Higgins displays for Eliza because of *her* class.

    Sasha W., having actually seen the play myself, I can safely say that TTT treats it with an incredible amount of respect and absolutely no "lightness" on the matter of Henry Higgins' verbal abuse. It's astonshing to me that a critic would fail to notice this, and this is another issue I take with Ms. Regan's review. I would suggest you go yourself to see TTT's production (and also do a little reading up on the company...the audience is never, as you suggest, forced to go to a show, but rather elect to--and enjoy it immensely).

    You shouldn't critique your own show's critique.

    I think some of you readers are looking into Sheila's comments too much and should step back and take a look at your own assumptions about the critics "motives."  Just because the critic has the opinion that the audience may not have been as triggered because of the accents/banter doesnt mean she is assuming that they don't understand the play.  Why would you come to that conclusion, you seem quick to go to that...  And I may not be able to call it a trend yet, but TTT HAS been doing questionable productions.  Othello....My Fair Lady? Come ON.  You can make the argument that these shows are still relevant, but only if you are going to discuss that in your interpretation of how f***ed up they are.  I would agree with Sheila...I was far from convinced said anything important with My Fair Lady other than it is a fun show.  Othello was the same for me (which is a story about a jealous husband who viciously murders his wife.  The way in which it was staged by TTT was incredibly triggering for me who is a survivor of sexual assault.  I couldnt tell if I was seeing a show by TTT or A Strictly Shakespeare Theatre.  You cant treat a show that is a symbol and product of an incredibly sexist, oppressive and racist society with respect.  Slight genderbending in My Fair Lady is not enough to convince me that you are creating a radical piece of work that aims to deconstruct and combat the issues in the play.  Sorry.  I honestly feel that people are being hyper-defensive about their choice of play not the CRITICS comments.  Perhaps they haven't convinced themselves why they chose it yet, I think the choice of MFL is much more condescending!  MFL....Opera Center.....match made in heaven.

    PS TC Daily Planet doesn't "send" critics do a show that is what is so wonderful about it.  If you want staged critique call the City Pages... heyoh!

     

    "Just because the critic has

    "Just because the critic has the opinion that the audience may not have been as triggered because of the accents/banter doesnt mean she is assuming that they don't understand the play."

    Her statement about "triggering" was not what led me to that conclusion. This little gem was:

    "Perhaps the British accents and century-old setting provided enough psychological distance so that the women could enjoy the witty banter without necessarily seeing how it might relate to modern relationship issues."

    Do you seriously not see how she is EXPLICITLY stating that she believes the audience did not understand?

    As for TTT's "questionable" productions...Othello and My Fair Lady are done in hundreds of theaters across the country. It's not like TTT is the only theater putting these shows on. They are, however, one of the only theaters putting such shows on with such a great amount of respect--not for the *play* but for the audience, their situation and their *intelligence.*  I didn't see "Othello," so I can't talk about it, but I can say that if you think "slight genderbending" was the only thing they did to confront the sexism of My Fair Lady, then you're totally wrong. Did you not, for instance, pick up on the ambiguity of the ending? How about the power that came with having Henry Higgins speak "I've Grown Accustomed to her Face" instead of singing it, forcing the audience to confront the sexism of the lyrics? How about hiring one of the Twin Cities' best actors to play Eliza? A TTT actor told me after the show that the women in the treatment centers and prisons often broke out into applause for Eliza when she left Henry Higgins.

    These plays still exist. Sexism, racism, etc., still exist. They are products of a "bygone era" in terms of when they were written, but not in terms of the issues they bring up. Perhaps the nuances of TTT's producing these plays aren't for you; you would rather we kick them into the back of the room and pretend that they never were written. That's fine. Why don't you just wait for the annual "Christmas Carol" to roll around at the Guthrie and get your dose of "theater" that way? Or better yet, go to the movies.

    On a lighter note

    I just read through the comments. What rancor!

    All  I want  is a a you-tube video of Bradley Greenwald singing "On the street where you live" to share with a friend who missed the show. Is that possible?