Brave is the only word to describe Rogue Theatre’s return to the Chicago stage over the past year after a hiatus of almost a decade. The first play the company produced last year was Don Juan in Hell: an act usually excised from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. In the second production since their return, they are at Shaw again, and this time have chosen Pygmalion whose characters, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, have been immortalized in Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, both on Broadway and in film by no less than Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn, and Rex Harrison.
Director Nathan Robbel choses to stage the play with a mix of the familiarity of the musical drama and more alien interpretations of the character that come both from Shaw’s script and his own and his actor’s artistic imagination. In particular, Nate White’s almost total departure from Harrison’s Henry Higgin’s gives the play a substantially different feel than the musical version to which most of the audience is probably accustomed. Rather than being controlled and methodical, he is full of a manic energy that he delightfully and breathlessly sustained through entire play.
While this gives the play a very fresh feel, the representation and the sculpting of his Pygmalion, Liza Doolittle (Nellie Ognacevic), threatens to get lost completely in the energy of White’s performance and undermine the central premise of Shaw’s script: Higgin’s Pygmalion. Ognacevic performance is much more familiar. Indeed, perhaps because her character centers so much around her dialect (Adam Goldstein), it is hard to do Liza Doolittle in a multiplicity of ways and Ognacevic performance differs little from Hepburn or Andrews’. Nonetheless, it is extremely well-executed and certainly not a disappointment even if in comparison with those iconic actresses.
On the other hand, Colonel Pickering (Colby Sellers), Freddy Enysford-Hill (Christopher Ratliff), and Alfred Doolittle (Joseph Stearns) commendable attempt to produce fresh takes on Shaw’s characters leads to a certain disunity and lack of chemistry between their performances and those of the other actors. (Though Stearn’s Alfred Doolittle is delightful.) Perhaps the strongest and most convincing performance on stage is Kristina M. Schramm’s as Mrs. Higgins as she manages to balance a stern countenance and blistering contempt for her son with delightful comedic talent and a concern for Eliza’s welfare for which she stems purely from guilt over her son’s action rather than any sort of maternal feeling.
Overall, this is an enjoyable production of Shaw’s most famous play and boasts some fascinating and delightful performances. It is worth seeing even though it may contain a significant thematic deficit in that we never real get the sense of a Pygmalion coming to life, and the fact that, technically, the show is a bit of a mixed bag. It could have been considerably improved by more sophisticated set and properties (Marni Balint): much of which the audience has to imagine—not really ideal for a play that has, at least become, an Edwardian period piece, particularly as the excellent costumes (Kristina M. Shcramm) often gave more of a sense of character than of period. The minimalist lighting (Brian Elston), does effectively delineate each scene, but never really ventures into mood or theme. That said, I understand that the idiosyncratic performance space must have posed varying degrees of challenges for the technicians, especially Elston’s lighting design
Rogue Theatre’s production of Pygmalion runs through May 7, 2016 at RBP Rorshack located at 4001 N. Ravenswood Avenue in Chicago.
Thursday 8 p.m.
Friday 8 p.m.
Saturday 8 pm.
Tickets range between $5 and $15 and can be purchased by visiting http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2532991
Parking is fairly available (if the Cubbies are not in town), some metered, some residential, but some not along Ravenswood.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Pygmalion”