You and I and Pickering

Bedlam is a troupe of actors best known for their small-cast stagings of large-scale plays: there was the four-person Hamlet, and before that the four-person Saint Joan.  In 2015, they began performing two versions of Twelfth Night in repertory—this required expanding the company to five.  In between their appearances in New York, artistic director Eric Tucker and his merrymakers travel the country, setting up shop in local theaters and colleges, gradually expanding their stable of productions.  For example, I saw Saint Joan back in 2012, but the group has been mounting it consistently since then, including an upcoming one-month engagement at the Folger Theatre in D.C.

There is something terrifically charming and anachronistic about this model.  Bedlam recalls the traveling players of past centuries, and one gets the sense that if a fat-pursed royalty demanded immediately to see, say, Hamlet, it would only take Mr. Tucker and company a couple of hours to unpack their trunks and begin the show.

In any case, Bedlam has now added Pygmalion to its stock of plays, with Mr. Tucker as Henry Higgins and Vaishnavi Sharma as a Delhi-born Eliza Doolittle.  Though he claims to be “interested in exploring how power is negotiated through sexual politics in a gritty interpretation of Shaw’s classic play,” I suspect this is a bit of timely marketing.  His Pygmalion is light and funny, while the text’s misogyny is mostly ignored in favor of a production that focuses on a series of strong performances.

And it is the supporting cast that stands out the most.  Edmund Lewis, playing Mrs. Higgins, eschews the campy drag performance we might expect and instead embodies this matriarch with exquisite poise, reminding me of Brian Bedford’s wonderful turn as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.  The key, as always, is that he doesn’t appear to find any of this funny, which of course makes it all hysterical.  But it is Rajesh Bose who I will remember best: his Alfred Doolittle is a shameless if oddly honest scoundrel, capable of holding forth on the class system while inching ever closer to that fiver you’ll inevitably hand him.  Delightful.

Admittedly, some things do get lost in this manic, slapdash approach.  I am still wondering why Eliza—who began with a thick Indian accent—ends without it, as if class and nation were synonymous.  Surely there is posh Indian English just as there is posh British English, and how Higgins rid her of her natural speech rhythms as well as her poor grammar are beyond me.  Still, this is such good fun that it hardly matters.  I only hope Mr. Tucker’s Orson Welles mentality is contagious, and that Bedlams pop up all over the country, continuing to course new lifeblood into the canon of English theater.

Pygmalion runs through April 22nd at the Sheen Center.  18 Bleecker Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 10 minutes.  No intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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