“Pygmalion” is a true classic in every sense of the word.
“I really am falling in love with this play, the complexities of it and the roller coaster it puts you through,” says David I.L. Poole, Collective Face artistic director. “Shaw was a brilliant man.”
The play is based on a Greek myth about a sculptor, Pygmalion, who creates a statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. When he prays to the goddess Aphrodite to give him a wife just like the statue, it comes to life, becoming a woman named Galatea.
In 1912 London, Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, makes a bet that he can train a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.
To Higgins, the most important element of this transformation is impeccable speech. By transforming Eliza’s Cockney accent, he believes he can make her appear ladylike and gentile, acceptable by high society.
The play lampoons the rigid British class system of the day, and at the same time, is a commentary on women’s independence.
“I find little things about it every single time we’re doing a run through or working a scene,” Poole says. “It’s a testament to the brilliance of Shaw’s writing. We keep having ‘aha’ moments, which is so wonderful.”
“Pygmalion” was the basis for the musical “My Fair Lady.”
“Finding the differences between ‘My Fair Lady’ and the play is very interesting,” Poole says. “The play was written way, way, way before ‘My Fair Lady,’ and when ‘My Fair Lady’ was written, Shaw had died.
“‘My Fair Lady’ is more centered around Eliza’s journey. The play is centered around Henry’s journey.
“The play does not end the way the musical ends,” Poole says. “Shaw was very adamant on the ending of the play.”
Indeed, Shaw would become enraged if the play was altered.
“People tried to change the ending and Shaw actually wrote a whole essay/epilogue which is included in most versions of the play,” Poole says. “He explains why the ending needs to be the way it is.”
In the beginning of the essay, Shaw wrote that the ending must be true to the play.
“When Eliza emancipates herself — when Galatea comes to life — she must not relapse,” Shaw wrote. “She must retain her pride and triumph to the end.”
Despite his strong feelings about the content, Shaw intended “Pygmalion” to be funny — and it is.
“It is a comedy and it is really interesting,” Poole says. “I’m so happy to be doing it with Mark Rand and April Hayes as Henry and Eliza.
“Eric Salles is playing Mr. Doolittle. He’s going to be brilliant.”
Gary Shelby portrays Colonel Pickering, Julie Kessler is Mrs. Pearce and Dandy Barrett is Mrs. Higgins. Additional cast members are Nory Garcia, Casey Bessette, Kevin Santana, Lisa Buse, Corey Hollinger, J. Frank Lynch and Garrett Ward, with lighting design by Mike Moynihan.
“It’s a very interesting play because it speaks on women’s independence and the old myth of Pygmalion,” Poole says. “In Shaw’s play, it is a fractured fairy tale about the creator and the sculpture.
“It’s a very beautiful play. The design elements are going to be gorgeous.
“We’ve gone in an Edwardian, sort of an art nouveau esthetic as much as possible,” he says. “It doesn’t feel stodgy.”
Despite being set in 1912, the play is relevant today.
“One thing we really want people to understand, even though it’s a classic play, it really does resonate with us,” Poole says. “That’s why people are still doing it.
“It gives us a different option for theater goers. It’s the second classic play we’ve done, but the first true classic in pure form that we’ve done.
“It’s about language and its complexity and social class,” he says. “It’s about all those wonderful things you want to talk about.”
The play opens as people are coming out of a theater, having watched an opera.
“From a designer’s perspective, I wanted to show how, at the beginning of the play, Eliza is in a world of color,” Poole says. “All the Cockney, everyday people are in color.
“The design esthetic was that the common folk are in the brightest colors we can get them in. As Eliza transforms into being Miss Doolittle, the color gets stripped more and more and more.
“The upper crust is represented by the browns, whites, creams and blacks, with the exception of some key characters,” Poole says. “Mrs. Higgins is in lavender, almost gray.”
At the end of the play, when Eliza seeks her independence again, her outfit changes back into a bit of color.
“We’ve got some beautiful sets and beautiful costumes,” Poole says. “It’s going to be a treat.”
This production of “Pygmalion” features its own vocal dialect coach, Jeffrey DeVincent, who is helping the actors master English accents, particularly Cockney.
“He wanted to come on board and asked if I wanted a dialect coach,” Poole says. “I said, ‘Yes!’ The actors love working with him.
“He said, ‘I want to do something behind the scenes.’ He loves the musicality of language.”
One of the reasons Poole chose Hayes to play Eliza is because she has studied dialect.
“Who else would be perfect to play this part that is demanding in accent work?” he asks. “It’s a challenge for any actress playing Eliza Doolittle. She has to become a proper lady mid-play.
“In the early part, she’s got to be a guttersnipe from the depths of London society,” Poole says. “Her transformation is beautiful.”
While the play is Shaw’s most popular, it was very controversial when it debuted.
“They thought there would be protesting by flower girls and dustmen,” Poole says. “It’s a bit of a ‘choose your own adventure’ in the sense that when Shaw wrote this, he went back and rewrote scenes for most of his life.”
The play is best set in its own time period, Poole says.
“There have been major productions where they tried to modernize it,” he says. “It works to some degree, but you have to basically rewrite the whole play.
“There are scenes he wrote, and he apologizes for doing it, that he says make it an impossible play to produce. There are too many scene changes. It’s not a part of a one-location deal.
“As the director, I have to figure how to shift locations,” Poole says. “We came up with some clever ways, but it was a challenge.”
This version of “Pygmalion” is left in 1912, but with a difference.
“It has a little flavor of contemporary clothing,” Poole says. “I didn’t want it to be so period that we can’t do chimney sweeps and guttersnipes with bright colors.
“There’s a little bit of steampunk and slight modernizations. If you like ‘Downton Abbey,’ if you like that sort of opulence and grandeur, this is your show.”
On opening night, there will be an after-performance reception catered by Joe’s Homemade Café, Catering & Bakery.
The play is fun for nearly everyone, Poole says.
“It’s going to be a hoot, with a lot of laughter and joking,” he says. “It’s great for families. It might not be appropriate for the very young because it’s a wordy British play, but if they’re teenagers, it’s a good show to see.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Collective Face Theatre Ensemble presents “Pygmalion”
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17; 3 p.m. Dec. 4, 11, 18
Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703 Louisville Road
Info: 912-232-0018, collectiveface.org