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.