A New Take on the Old Pygmalion

Pygmalion is set to hit the stage in WMC Alumni Hall for four days beginning Wed. Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. Written by George Bernard Shaw in the early 1900s, Pygmalion is about a poor British girl named Eliza Doolittle that finds herself in the hands of a successful linguist named Professor Henry Higgins after he proposes in jest that he could change Eliza’s entire life and get her a better job and a better living situation by teaching her better speech. Hilarity and drama ensue as the two explore each other’s difficult personalities whilst juggling the wild cast of characters that they meet along the way. However, these wild personalities don’t stop with the acting. Sitting in on a Pygmalion rehearsal, I learned that these McDaniel actors are just as enjoyable offstage as they are onstage, and just how genuine the energy that they bring to their characters is.

As rehearsal time grew near, the actors streamed in in small groups of two or three, their British accents echoing off the walls of the Under Stage, which they’re using as their practice space. It’s cold in the room, which smells of paint and wood and is colored primarily black. Yet the sun is streaming through the small stained glass windows in the back of the room, and that light reflects the actor’s attitudes as the air fills with the sounds of laughter and the clicking of the girls’ heels.

Some of the actors break off from their friends to a private corner so they can practice their lines before rehearsal starts, yet others are happy simply chatting and laughing amongst themselves. The girls are dressed in long white flowing skirts that make it them feel as if they’ve stepped out of 1914. Their shirts, on the other hand, are t-shirts with clever statements and blouses that appear to be off the rack of Forever Twenty-One.

“Your skirt is scandalously short!” declares Elena Waller to her friend Jennifer Litzinger. The two erupt into giggles as they admire Litzinger’s skirt, which falls right below the knee, as opposed to down to the ankles like the other girls’ skirts.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” director Elizabeth van den Berg calls out in an impeccable British accent. The room falls silent. Actors stop pacing and look in her direction as attendance is called. Everyone is accounted for except for one actress, and the stage manager is asked to call her immediately. There is a very notable air of business in the room.

After attendance, rehearsal begins as van den Berg’s British accent rings through the room once again: “Places for the top of the show!”

“Thank you, places!” the actors reply as they run to scatter across the stage.

The show begins with a very distraught woman and her daughter waiting for someone named Freddie to bring around a taxi. Within seconds of beginning, one of the actresses stops, frozen in her tracks. “Line,” she squeaks, looking apologetically at the director. The line is read for the actress to repeat, but van den Berg is not impressed. “Do it again,” van den Berg requests and the scene starts from the top.

The rest of the rehearsal echoes that moment, as actors and actresses forget their lines and van den Berg calls out “do it again” and “from the top.” The body language of everyone on stage seems to shift as they get further and further into rehearsal. Girls become ladies and boys become gentlemen, even the extras are engaged as van den Berg requests that they “make a choice” about their characters.

Even with all the focus and energy that these thespians are pouring into their work, they make sure to have fun. Daniel Valentin-Morales, who plays the main character Professor Higgins, jumps for joy when he finds out that one of the extras is going to be selling fruit in the opening scene.

“She’s got apples!” he coos. He continues, “Can I go get an apple? Can I eat an apple?” to which Director van den Berg smiles and agrees. In this way, through suggestions or jokes by the students, many decisions are made. Van den Berg provides her cast with a very open dialogue, getting them more involved and invested in their work. In fact, her sense of humor is not lacking at all during the rehearsal. At one point, she confiscates Professor Higgins’ notebook, in which he is supposed to be writing down every word that Eliza Doolittle speaks, to reveal to the cast Valentin-Morales’ drawing of a smiley face.

Later during the rehearsal, Emily Wendler, who plays Eliza Doolittle, shows off her chemistry with Valentin-Morales by smiling at him and declaring in her cockney accent, “Quite the pair, aren’t we Higgins?” It is this chemistry that makes their scenes together an absolute joy to witness—even as they rehearse them three times, with multiple starts and stops, in order to perfect lines and movements.

Come out to see chemistry and talent from the entire cast of Pygmalion, every night from Wed. Oct. 2 to Sat. Oct 5 at 7:30 p.m. in WMC Alumni Hall at McDaniel College. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for students and children.