Women dominate much of what’s onstage right now, beginning with George Bernard Shaw’s comedy of manners, gender, class, and now– colonialism and cultural assimilation. PYGMALION has gotten a makeover by New York’s brilliant Bedlam theater company by way of Underground Railway Theater at Central Square. It’s a crisp, up-to-the minute, vibrant and touching take on a classic. Beware the opening scene which sneaks up on the audience, many of whom find themselves trapped onstage among the actors who have begun to speak their lines! The set is a mere handful of chairs rearranged to conjure every scenario, which puts the emphasis on a breathtakingly nimble cast who give us the signature Bedlam spin, playing multiple characters in one scene. The effect is riveting, funny, and frenetic as Shaw’s text constricts; then the pace slows and opens up to breathe, and this very familiar story lands with fresh humor and unexpected gravitas.
Flower seller Eliza Doolittle, becomes the subject of a bet and putty in the hands of the linguistically sophisticated, but myopic Henry Higgins, until she uses her newly acquired syntax and self-possession to knock the prof off his perch and into her purview. Vaishnavi Sharma’s spectacular Eliza is not to be trifled with; she’s a tiny powerhouse, with great ambition and even more character; director Eric Tucker’s Professor Higgins never sees her coming. They are, despite their differing social stations, remarkably suited to one another, his pragmatic intellectualism undone by her raw yet refined perspicacity. Their final scene is unexpectedly poignant; as all-knowing and even-handed as Higgins thinks he is, the newly cultivated Eliza awakens an even richer sensibility in him. We are left sadly wondering if he will rise to the challenge of meeting his match. Don’t miss BEDLAM’S PYGMALION through MARCH 3!
Then duck into the BCA’s Plaza Black Box Theatre for a world premiere presented by Fresh Ink Theatre: GIRLISH. Alexa Derman’s play took me back to those fraught days of being a teenage girl, the camaraderie and competition, the guilt and gal pal fun. GIRLISH is set almost entirely in 15 year-old Windy’s (Atlee Jensen) bedroom hanging out with her BFF Marti (Willa Eigo), living through her American Girl Dolls and posting on instagram. When her online celebrity blows up, and she attracts the attention of a cute guy (Dylan C. Wack) online who shares her AG obsession, her friendship with Marti is rocked. Melanie Garber directs this fleet, funny, penetrating dive into the painful dynamics of girls growing up, and the turbulence of navigating ones developing identity at the intersection of sexual preference, gender identity, friendship, etc. watching Windy and Marti was enlightening and painful, amid the turbulence of growing up. It feels like it was written from the inside out, meticulously observed, and well-acted. See it (only 65 minutes) with your best girlfriend then discuss over dinner. Through February 16!
NAT TURNER IN JERUSALEM is as solemn as a vigil, deeply moving, soulfully acted and intimately experienced by this viewer. Actors’ Shakespeare Project presents this two-hander in collaboration with Hibernian Hall in Roxbury where it is staged. Brandon G. Green is a powerful Nat Turner –visionary? revolutionary? murderer? martyr? The play asks these questions of the preacher/slave who lead a slave rebellion in August 1831 and killed the families of white slave-owners. Turner was captured, tried, convicted and executed in Jerusalem(!) Va; his lawyer Thomas R. Gray (Lewis D. Wheeler, in a deft turn, also plays Turner’s jailer) recorded Nat Turner’s confessions. I have often wondered aloud, contemplating the barbarity of slavery and its aftermath, why we aren’t all murdered in our beds. This play takes that on. That the play is relevant now, is an understatement.
The audience surrounds Nat Turner’s dimly lit cell and watches through the bars as he awaits execution. We are his witnesses, jury, judge, and participants as the inheritors of this ignominious history. Was Nat’s decision justified by the god who he said told him to do this? Was his a holy war, or self-defense against systemic genocide? Or was it a murderous inexcusable rampage? We lug this bloody legacy forward, along with its tainted history; Turner’s confession is chained to the words of his historian Gray, who stood to gain from its publication.
Nathan Alan Davis’s script seeks to set the thorny truth of Nat’s experience free, so we can grapple with its implications, and these perfect performances lead us to the heart of the matter. In Wheeler’s hands, Gray ‘s smugness gradually softens and gives way to the atmosphere Turner generates out of his luminous faith and conviction. It’s as though Green’s Turner is breathing different air as he looks up and out, past his death, and into a future where his deeds reverberate. Benny Sato Ambush directs all with elegance and restraint. Through February 24.
Finally, there’s a world premiere presented by Bridge Repertory Theater now on at Cambridge’s Multicultural Arts Center called WHO IS EARTHA MAE? a one-woman show about singer Eartha Kitt created & performed by Jade Wheeler. I knew Eartha Kitt, and she’s no Eartha Kitt. The real Eartha Kitt was a singer, actress, songwriter, broadway star, and eventual activist, who was once deemed “the most exciting woman on earth” by Orson Welles. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson said, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary but she can make a song burst into flame.”
A tall order and this show falls far short, somehow managing to flatten the dramatic arc of a tumultuous real life tale of abandonment, abuse, sudden fame, fortune, and liaisons with famous men. Wheeler is a good singer, but a dull singer. I wasn’t expecting an exact replication but hoped she would somehow capture some of Eartha’s appeal and vibrance. Wheeler is tense and all surface, instead of loose, lithe, and ultra confident. The real Eartha stalked the stage, glaring with feral eyes, smokin’ hot as her high-pitched growl curled around your spine. She was febrile and terrifying in person. I interviewed her live on air once, and she scared the hell out of me. Through February 23.