At 8:00 this past Saturday night, then at 3:00 the following day, in what amounted to less than a 24-hour period, I got two servings of Shaw: George Bernard Shaw, that is (as if I were referring to any other). One was splendidly mounted at the Samuel J. Friedman by the Manhattan Theatre Club, with their production of his 1923 play Saint Joan, and the other by Lincoln Center Theatre, gloriously sparing no expense, with a revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1956 musical My Fair Lady, based upon Shaw's 1913 comedy, Pygmalion. As with anything by Shaw, ideas are thrown up in the air and juggled like so many bowling pins. But when in the hands of directors like Dan Sullivan (Saint Joan) and Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady), those pins never hit the floor. Not only is there much-needed buoyancy in the air, but magic, too.
Condola Rashad as Saint Joan and Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle (2018).
A 105 year old play about Joan of Arc is a tricky proposition to perform in 2018, especially in a three-hour long production. And the reduced attention spans of most ordinary theatregoers make it even more problematic. But speaking for myself, I had no issues with boredom at this Saint Joan (though the two people in front of me did, as they left at intermission). I found Shaw's take on Joan's story solid; presenting her as a noble and impassioned figure, though one with the poor luck to be born at a time when women were not allowed to have an idea in their head, let alone the right, or the presumed ability, to lead an army. Even with the permission Joan is granted, the men in charge hope she fails, since they can then be be rid of her. And if (by some miracle) she succeeds, they can still get rid of her, because they hold all the cards. She's a real bother, this Joan—particularly in the way she bothers men—yet somehow, she persisted.
In casting Condola Rashad, who with only five Broadway appearances has been nominated for four Tony Awards (her latest being this Saint Joan last week), the production has found someone most worthy to follow into battle. Beginning as a seventeen year old, her hair a mess of contradictions, Joan herself is of one mind: she is on a mission to save France. This is a very tricky road to navigate, as Joan can come off as one-dimensional with little effort. But the efforts to resist that, in both Rashad's performance and Dan Sullivan's skilled direction, make a meal of the story. Even Shaw’s epilogue, which takes place twenty-five years later, and has been derided by some critics over the years for its “cuteness,” felt smart (as well as a relief) to close out the play. Without it, Saint Joan would end on one of the most downbeat notes for any heroine in world theatre. Or did you forget Joan is burned at the stake? Should I have posted a spoiler alert?
The men who come into contact with Joan are an interesting lot. They include the ambiguous heroism of Daniel Sunjata's Dunois; Jack Davenport's oily and condescending Earl of Warwick and Walter Bobbie's thick, yet razor-sharp Bishop. And it's always a pleasure to have John Glover on hand, be it as an Archbishop of dubious intent, or a fussy Englishman from the future (that darn epilogue). The set by Scott Pask reveals beauty in both function and form, and Jane Greenwood's costumes are her usual best (though aided by some standard "pulls" from Western Costume, the renowned company that merits a special thanks in the Playbill). The evocative lighting design is by Justin Townsend.
My visit to the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center the next afternoon was pure pleasure, what with Bartlett Sher's continuing re-invention of that theatre's space (which once baffled and terrified directors in equal measure). Beginning in 2008 with South Pacific, then on to The King and I in 2015, and now with My Fair Lady, Sher is three for three, in offering both style and substance. All conceived in collaboration with his extraordinary team of designers—Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting). To say their work is out-of-this world is as high as I can go and altogether necessary.
As for the work that has gone into re-working the play (finessing is probably the right word), I can report that I had no problems with this Fair Lady being of the moment, and by that I mean the #MeToo moment. In so doing, it neither renders it dogmatic, nor does it attempt the forcing of a square peg into a round hole. In a conversation I had with Sher at intermission, as well as after the performance, he told me “this was the hardest play I’ve ever directed.” Specifically, in having to address the romance between Higgins and Eliza, and for it not to be (in his words) “about a creepy old guy.”
The first time I saw My Fair Lady beyond its 1964 film was in its 20th anniversary Broadway revival in 1976. It was re-staged (and not re-thought) by Jerry Adler, the assistant stage manager on the original, directed by Moss Hart. When it was later revived again on Broadway in 1993, critics savaged British director Howard Davies' reinterpretation, particularly the surrealistic imagery in its scenery. Much of it evoked the Belgian painter Magritte, as with one example, that had the Ascott observers standing on swings in mid-air. This caused the New York Times theatre critic David Richards to ask the question: "How do you treat a masterpiece? Reverently or audaciously?"
If I were to have asked Bartlett Sher that question this past Sunday afternoon, I imagine he would have said that it shouldn't be treated like a masterpiece at all, but as a living, breathing work of its own time—not the time it was written. And by doing just that, he has created a My Fair Lady that speaks to today, while still harkening back to what made it such a popular and critical success. The original may have had a nineteen-year-old Julie Andrews as what many recall as a near-perfect Eliza Doolittle, but the show belonged to its top-billed star, Rex Harrison. Here, with barely changing a line, Lauren Ambrose's Eliza is now the star of the show. And it's not because the charismatic Harry Hadden-Paton is a lackluster Higgins. He is a more subdued one, yes. But he is still as much of a cranky adult and overgrown child as Harrison once was.
Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton in My Fair Lady (2018).
Without divulging the answers, these are the questions Sher has raised with this My Fair Lady: Should audiences today still root for Higgins and Eliza to be together? And if so, at what cost is it then to Eliza's newly-built independence? Back in 1956, did anyone think Harrison's Higgins was really going to change for her once the curtain fell? Or that Eliza would be successful in softening him? Or was that just a collective wish? And if so, can we go back to wishing such things anymore? In the sixty-two years since My Fair Lady first opened, haven't we finally woke up from that dream?
At the end of the day, my weekend of Shaw did prove one thing: that the old guy is the winner and still champ (he was born 161 years ago). There's no question that today's audiences can benefit from listening to the arguments for which many of his characters have become famous the world over. Particularly when directors like Dan Sullivan and Bartlett Sher are confident in mining the words for what's behind their intent, as well as for keeping a keen eye on what keeps them relevant—and surprising.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.