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Cal Shakes' "Pygmalion" a transformative experience without the Hollywood bent

Cal Shakes "Pygmalion"

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Cal Shakes continues the season of dreams with a realistic and intellectual, non-Hollywood version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, with Irene Lucio as the street smart cockney flower girl who decides to go full bore into the world of the articulate to get off the street and get her own flower shop. Audrey Hepburn as most know played the role in the film "My Fair Lady".

(L to R) L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, and Anthony Fusco as Henry Higgins
(L to R) L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, and Anthony Fusco as Henry HigginsKevin Berne

Doolittle rises to a challenge by a professor on a good ole’ boy lark who wants to take her on to prove his decidedly asexual, professorial prowess. The leading women in this cast are joys to behold, each holding her own through common decency and in her own way against the boys club and class snobbery.

Alternatively this production looks into the mutuality yet awkwardness of a pair of gay gentlemen taking in a needy female. Doolittle junior remains a good girl but cannot help being her good-time father Dootlittle's daughter--shamelessly independent and self-serving. We must almost look at her without judgment since she, motherless with no female role model, needs to be her own parent and gender must come second after survival.

I’m a good girl I am

Eliza has a mind of her own however poor her circumstances. She sees this challenge as a means to an end, by serving as the ostensible guinea pig of an arrogant and socially inept mama’s boy of a phonetics professor played unlikably and coarsely by Anthony Fusco. However, Peter O'Toole as well as Rex Harrison played the role in films. Nevertheless it’s another thrilling and delightful professional cast all around, projecting spunk if not charisma, personality and integrity.

Speaking of which. Director Moscone sat in the audience along with star Shakespearean comic Danny Scheie and his husband Derek, dressed in Giants attire.

So back to Eliza. What’s to become of her upon graduation from the con, success measured by social acceptance at a society gala after six months of language tutoring. She mixes her dialects on the way at a trial run. The professor tries to pass off the fusion as cockney made posh, the latest jive.

Even so, she has no pedigree, no connections although the gentleman toying with her laugh at her fears. They seem to mean well, it's their way of allaying her fears. All they say however is that she may marry money or get some money via men to set up her shop. L. Peter Callendar does play a relatively likeable and good natured scholar and a gentleman in this good cop/bad cop routine. He's like the submissive partner to Fusco's dominant antagonist. As such Colonel Pickering treats Eliza as a lady or at least with common courtesy because he’s a mature gentleman. In an American world he would treat all with common courtesy as we are all created equal. We should not have to buy what is inherently ours, along with a right to pursue happiness.

School loan crisis

The social satire applies today as we as Americans are taught to pursue the American dream through education. Generations of Americans have been skewered for life by unscrupulous and arrogant big banks and politicians bought out by Sallie Mae lobbyists who have made school loans non-dischargeable and so last for life, crippling those who naively thought they could better their lot with honest hard work and a degree. To this day the legislative reforms have only come to limitations on monthly collection of a certain percentage of a student loan holder’s income.

That’s no matter how egregious the principal and compounded interest and fine print, no matter how bad the public policy behind the tuition and fees charged. The federal government garnishes wages and even disability and social security. Call your legislators today and push for legislative reform, for the reinstatement of basic consumer protections such as bankruptcy protection, statutes of limitation and caps on amounts.

Sharon Lockwood is an absolute joy to see as Mrs. Higgins, the wealthy mother of the boyish and awkward bachelor professor. She has such an innate dignity and warmth about her. Her sense of commaraderie and modest tolerance shines every Christmas as the put-upon housekeeper of Scrooge in ACT’s “A Christmas Carol” with James Carpenter in the title role. Moscone however casts Scrooge as the father of Eliza Doolitttle, a tough opportunist who comes to collect his due from the professor for the use of his daughter.

Catherine Castellanos plays the other reality check in the professor’s household, his stern and matronly housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. She’s a strong enough woman to try to clean up the urchin and she gets a great moment emerging from the implied wrestling in the bathtub and removal of the girl’s infested hat. Anna Oliver’s costume designs are not only a comic delight but range to soft and elegant, showing outwardly the transformations and changes in Eliza’s life. Even Eliza has to agree she cleans up well.

Julie Eccles and Elyce Prince serve as the Victorian straight women for some great comedy with the reluctant host Professor Higgins and his mother. Nicholas Pelczar gets another one of his supporting roles as the son, Eliza’s young smitten suitor. We get an introduction to their snobbery when Eliza feels suspected of somehow being familiar with young Freddy Eynsford Hill, getting defensive as she starts her oft-repeated “I’m a good girl I am”. So, Pelczar’s Freddy gets a great sequence in the opening scene trying haplessly to fetch a carriage for the ladies in a downpour where we first encounter Eliza on the street with her cronies.

Moscone provides a great casting gesture with regal Sharon Lockwood here as we first see her as one of the cockney cronies. Moscone foretells the success of Eliza in this way. Or are the dirty costumes and the tough body language of the cockney crowd just a lot of fun. It’s ladies’ choice in this delightful production.

Cal Shakes held the traditional party after the opening production and served lovely tea sandwiches and chocolate truffles along with wine and a non-alcoholic beverage like apple juice called Liquid Gold, along with lemonade. The café serves wonderful hot entrees from pastrami pannini to wild salmon salad. Desserts include cheesecake, cookies, kettle corn; Peet’s Coffee and Tea, beer and wine.

Details

Tickets range from $20 to $72 with discounts for students, seniors, military families, persons 30 and under and for groups.

Audience members dress for camp outs and sometimes sit inside their own sleeping bags although the theater rents blankets.

Patrons picnic in the eucalyptus grove strung with lights.

The complimentary or free shuttle runs from Orinda BART and a golf cart carries patrons up the hill from the ticket booth to the theater grounds.

“Pygmalion” runs to August 24. 100 Calfiornia Shakespeare Way, Orinda, California 94563. Signs mark the exits from Highway 24 near the Caldecott Tunnel on the Contra Costa County side. Complimentary or free parking.

For more information: www.CalShakes.org or call 510 548-9666.