Cap & Bells successfully takes on ‘Pygmalion’

A cast of actors led by director Emily Bannigan ’20 tackled George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion this past weekend in the Perry Library. The end result was a delightful show that transformed a play that is foreign to our place and time into one that speaks to our anxieties about class, gender dynamics and autonomy.

The chosen space certainly contributed to the play’s translation into an accessible context, as it took a space on campus generally removed from the public eye and altered it remarkably little. Perry Library forced the audience to remember a time gone by – thanks to its storied fraternity history and enhanced by some impressive prop and scenic choices – but also retains the inevitable mark of the College in its permanent fixtures like doors, windows and furniture. The space certainly had its limitations in terms of lighting, scenic options and sight lines. That said, Bannigan successfully utilized the little flexibility she did have through scene transitions that used the piano, played by Daniel Tran ’21, to keep the audience rapt in the world and its action.

The play opened on an out-of-place, semi-modernizing moment with Professor Higgins (Jake Eisner ’21) and Colonel Pickering (Samori Etienne ’21) huddled around a MacBook, but this scene was left in the past as the characters moved immediately back into their early 20th century sensibilities and firmly stayed there. Despite this archaic period, the actors kept the audience engaged through the play’s more comical moments. In particular, Professor Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Higgins (Peter Knowlton ’21) had raucous chemistry that aided in engaging the audience and deepening the characters’ relationships. Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle (Fiona Selmi ’21) oftentimes had a fiery back and forth that felt all the more intimate for an audience that existed on the same level as the action and was seated in close proximity to it. While the players’ physical proximity to the audience oftentimes advantaged the immediacy of the play, it detracted from some of the play’s more tender moments.

The equal playing space and lighting lent themselves to wandering eyes on behalf of the actors and every hesitation or doubt in the face of those on the stage could be perceived by the audience members sitting a handful of feet away. Such moments perhaps could not be avoided, but the actors minimized any negative effect it might have had on the audience. This primarily happened during the moments of intense drama, while the focus in comedic moments was typically strong and unimpeded. Another troubling aspect of the production was the discernment of language on behalf of the audience. Between the accents, the acoustics of the space and the tempo of the actors’ speech, some of the text was unfortunately lost on the audience. These moments were not common, but in a play that relies heavily on the power of speech, this was perhaps the most disappointing part of an otherwise lovely production.

In the end, regardless of whether it modernized its plot or aspects of the production, Bannigan and company managed to bring the play’s more pressing themes into the 21st century. Selmi tracked Eliza Doolittle’s character arc from eager pupil to frustrated puppet to defiant maverick with a convincing realism that gave her character a depth that is hard to achieve. Bannigan leaned fully into this arc, in the end embracing Eliza Doolittle’s agency and power to end the puppeteering of her own accord. A moment in which this particularly shined through was in one of the subtler scenes of the night, in which Pickering and Higgins entered after the garden party whistling “I Could’ve Danced All Night” in a perverse homage to My Fair Lady, the musical adaptation of this very show. The lighthearted celebration sung by Doolittle in the musical contrasted with the actual Doolittle of the scene, distraught and near her breaking point. The juxtaposition underscored how this production was destined to end far from the musical’s Broadway ending, and it made the moment, and Eliza’s arc, all the more meaningful.

The whole cast proved complex and intriguing supports to the main action of the story, and I wished we could have seen more of them, but Bannigan’s cuts to the original were necessary to keep the production lively and appealing to the busy Williams student. One of the most exciting parts of the production was the heavy presence of first-years amongst the cast and crew, and the fact that this was Bannigan’s Cap & Bells directorial debut as only a sophomore. This hopefully means that this production of Pygmalion may live on as not just an entertaining evening activity, but as a launching pad for promising careers in theater here at the College. I look forward to seeing what these theater-makers will go on to create.

Last weekend, Cap & Bells presented an intimate rendition of George Bernard Shaw’s famous play ‘Pygmalion’ in Perry Library. Photo courtesy of Shanti Hossain