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Shaw's 'Pygmalion' easily fits into CT playwright's transposition to Harlem

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'Higgins in Harlem" at the Playhouse on Park

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The very good news about the Playhouse on Park’s world premiere production of Lawrence Thelen’s “Higgins in Harlem,” which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” to the famed New York neighborhood at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in 1938 is that it works.

The class conflicts between the wealthy African-American community of Sugar Hill and the down and outers who have fallen victim to the Depression indeed parallel those of Shaw’s highly-educated English aristocracy represented by Professor Harold Higgins and the underprivileged Cockneys, typified by flower-seller Eliza Dolittle, reduced to becoming lowly street vendors. In Thelen’s revision which features an all-African-American cast, Higgins is a well-known but pompous linguist and Eliza, a homeless flower seller well-versed in the language of the street.

Thelen pretty much follows the outline of Shaw’s work and essentially retains all of the characters’ names, which may surprise those only familiar with Lerner and Loewe’s musical adaptation “My Fair Lady” which plays fast and loose with Shaw’s intentions. For as Shaw as well as Thelen’s adaptation makes abundantly clear, this is more a story of male privilege and the barriers women continued to face whether subtle or obvious in a changing society, rather than a love story between Higgins and Eliza.

Instead of London’s Covent Garden, Thelen has Higgins overhear Eliza’s use of street language outside Harlem’s Apollo Theater one rainy evening when she is trying to sell some flowers. It’s here that Higgins meets for the first time Conrad "Connie" Pickering, another professorial African-American, who subsequently bets Higgins that he cannot change this seemingly uneducated urban wretch into a distinguished, English-speaking African Princess within six months. It’s a bet that the self-aggrandizing Higgins feels too irresistible to resist and soon Eliza is ensconced into Higgin’s comfy home as he and Pickering prep Eliza for her big Harlem debut.

In his attempt to anchor the play in Harlem, Thelen makes Eliza and her father, James, homeless, which makes Eliza’s ultimate dilemma even more poignant. Her concern is what will happen to her once the experiment is over and she is no longer of any value to Higgins or Pickering. She has no home to return to, her father and his common-law wife have no ability to take her in, and her “education” under Higgins and Pickering has made her too sophisticated to go back to her community and resume selling flowers along 125th Street. There are sporadic references to a local Abyssinian Church and the occasional literary or spiritual figure.

Costume designer Valerie M. Webster has also done a fine job in creating a formidable array of costumes that immediately ground the play in its time and place, including the lovely gowns designed for members of the African-American upper-class and the fine zoot suit worn by Eliza’s preening and alcoholic father, James Dolittle, as he reluctantly prepares, thanks to a generous yet unexpected bequest, for his new role as a member of the middle class and the need, at least in his common-law’s eyes, to make their arrangement legal in the eyes of God.

Thelen, although a white writer, creates African-American characters who are believable, relatable, and honest. He doesn’t have to have them jump through hoops or compromise their characters’ integrity to squeeze them into the convolutions of Shaw’s basic plot. In many ways, he demonstrates how Shaw can be relevant to an African-American or a contemporary audience, as well as developing opportunities for African-Americans to play Shaw effectively without any cultural dissonance resulting from non-traditional casting which some audience members can find to be distracting.

The production at the Playhouse on Park, because of the limited budget necessitated by the theater’s restricted resources, could better serve the play with a fuller, more colorful production that I hope this play someday receives. But since this is a world premiere production it may be better served by viewing it more as a workshop for a play-in-progress, rather than its ultimate full-fledged staging. For example, it might be nice to have a few more folk in the cast, particularly for the crowd scene in front of the Apollo, though Thelan, who is doubling as his own director, does manage to create a sense of movement and bustle by some quick doubling by actors who will momentarily arrive on the scene.

That opening scene could also benefit from a little more contrast between the haves and have nots, especially if it further elucidates differences specific to this period. Are flowers the best thing for a poor homeless woman to be selling in the midst of the depression in front of the Apollo? Perhaps something more basic, such as apples, would seem more depression-oriented. This Eliza lacks the dirt and grit we often encounter in staging of “Pygmalion” or “My Fair Lady,” but some adjustment to the character’s costume or the use of special make-up might serve to remind us of Eliza’s desperation. I would imagine that her language could be a little bawdier with some more 30’s style street slang, particularly to justify Professor Higgins’ declaration that hers is the worst use of language he has ever heard. Geri-Nikole Love, as Eliza, does not quite reach the lowest level of incomprehensibility, but she does create just enough confusion so that the ritzier characters indeed have trouble understanding just what she is saying.

Love does manage to invest Eliza with the spunk and spirit of someone forced to earn her way on the streets, with an anger that helps to inform her initially unspoken desire to improve her lot. She’s confident that she can successfully maneuver her way in her familiar world because she has done so thus far, but responds with an appropriate mix of outrage and fear when challenged by Professor Higgins, after he has insulted her demeanor and deportment just outside the Apollo. Her change into the elegant and poised Eliza seems to happen too quickly, but in several key and very funny scenes, Thelen and Love demonstrate that these improvements only go so deep, requiring further instruction. What Love's performance makes clear, however, is Eliza's genuine yearning for some acknowledgement from Higgins of her work in this process and for some concern for her well-being after the experiment is completed.

Kevyn Morrow creates a strong presence as the stuffy Higgins, who takes himself much too seriously and exudes pride and arrogance in his supposedly superior intellect. His is a steady, yet one note performance that focuses too much on the man's unnuanced exasperation and agitation, which nonetheless demonstrates how Higgins is completely unaware of any impact his strong and frequently hurtful judgments have on the other characters, yet is quick to shift blame should any type of criticism be leveled in his direction, no matter how justified. If this Higgins has any feelings whatsoever for Eliza, other than as an experiment or go-fer, it is squarely not evidenced.

Particularly enjoyable is the Alfred Doolittle of Jeffrey Cousar who imparts his character with just the right balance of foolishness and shrewdness. While we’re appalled at the constantly inebriated man’s willingness to extort money from Higgins in return for allowing his daughter to stay, Cousar allows us to see the man’s inherent charm that has allowed him survive on Harlem’s streets. Bob Johnson plays Pickering with an intelligence and compassion that reveals itself in the character’s genuine concern for Eliza, even though he is partner to Higgins’ wager and can fail to credit Eliza’s own contributions to her transformation into the genteel African princess who has become part of Harlem society.

Janelle A. Robinson imbues Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother, with a stern wisdom that captures her exasperation for her son’s unfeeling escapades, while aligning her in solidarity with Eliza as the young woman tries to figure out her future. Mrs. Higgins is clearly the Shaw stand-in, serving to underline his disdain for the posturing of men of whatever class as he demonstrates the limited opportunities open to even the most intelligent and sophisticated women of the period. One of those options, which Mrs. Higgins advocates, is to marry Freddie Hill (Thelen has changed this family's last name from "Ensyford-Hill" in the original Shaw to the more believable "Hill."), the son of a socially ambitious widow, played by a delightful Joshua Ramos, as a sly, yet obedient son, whose juices get stimulated by the thought of a courtship with Eliza. His zoot-suited eagerness, held somewhat in check by Mrs. Higgins, is one of the pleasures of the production.

While Vanessa Butler plays Freddie’s sister with the right mix of immature haughtiness, Aurelia Clunie comes off as not only a bit young as Mrs. Hill but lacking an edge of urgency or ambition that has motivated her desire to move in Mrs. Higgins’ social circles. Xenia Gray, on the other hand, plays Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Pearce with the right mix of eye-rolling frustration and devotion.

Christopher Hoyt’s minimalist set design works very well on the Playhouse’s small thrust stage, with scenes established essentially by the arrangement of five high backed chairs, in an oval for Higgins’ quarters and a central combination of three chairs facing the audience flanked by facing chairs on either side for Mrs. Higgins’ residence. The concept works fine, as an ensemble of cast members and interns in period garb re-arrange the chairs in choreographed movements set to some of the more popular jazz hits of the 30’s.

While it seems a wonder that no one has previously thought of re-setting “Pygmalion” in Harlem, Thelen could do some elaboration to make the work reflect more on the Harlem Renaissance rather than adhere so slavishly to Shaw’s design. Yes,brief mention is made of an up and coming Adam Clayton Powell, who Higgins declares has no future in politics, and we do see the Apollo Theater and hear about Sugar Hill and a local Harlem newspaper, a little more local color might help capture more of the mood and spirit of the time and place, perhaps even catching glimpses of some of the colorful performers leaving the Apollo or hearing about the coming attractions at some other venues.

Thelan has directed the production so that it keeps moving and remains involving, though some more 30’s vernacular and attitude would better anchor the environment of the play. It seems as though the entire work is missing out on an opportunity to really recreate more of the Harlem Renaissance atmosphere. It did strike me as I sat watching the performance that “Higgins in Harlem” could indeed find a longer life, especially for African-American actors or African-American theater companies interested in trying their hand at Shaw or as something a tad different to complete a season at any regional theatre. And if an African American actor of fame wanted to make a big splash on Broadway, why this may prove to be an attractive alternative to all-African-American versions of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller that have been produced in recent years. Actor Johnson, the Pickering of this production, even admits in his program biography that he has been waiting for someone to write a black version of "Pygmalion." Perhaps Denzel Washington will want to tackle Shaw next time he heads back to Broadway.

There’s still time to catch “Higgins in Harlem” at the Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford, where it plays through Saturday, March 23. For tickets and further information, contact their box office or visit their website at www.PlayhouseOnPark.org.

To keep up with theatrical events in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner or the Springfield Art Examiner, but clicking on to the word “Subscribe” button at the top of this article near the byline or visit the archives at the links provided.

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