My Fair Empowered Lady: A new Eliza
Bartlett Sher’s “My Fair Lady” is in town at Proctor’s Theatre this week, bringing locals such favorites as “Wouldn’t It Be Lover-ly,” “The Rain in Spain,” and of course “I Could’ve Danced All Night.” The classic musical brought everything you’d hope from a Lincoln Center production: dazzling costumes, swoon-worthy music, stunning choreography, and toe-tapping melodies that stick in your head (and find their way out your mouth) for days.
What wasn’t anticipated, but clearly overdue and necessary, was the thought-provoking feminist take on Eliza Doolittle’s experiences with Professor Henry Higgins.
My mother and I masked up to attend the opening night, and we talked excitedly along the way about previous times we watched the film version of the show. I remembered Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza with fondness, and pretending as a young child to be hold my tea like she did. I even imagined as a young girl being transformed through knowledge and education into a “real lady” like Eliza, and falling for the handsome professor. My mother still flushed at the memory of handsome Rex Harrison, the actor who somehow made me think Higgins deserved Eliza. She couldn’t imagine a more perfect Higgins, but was hopeful for the performance.
Sher’s “My Fair Lady” took some quick departures from romanticizing this classic relationship, and I quickly found myself on new and somewhat surprising footing as I watched actor Laird Mackintosh portray an honestly narcissistic and socially awkward Higgins. Mackintosh didn’t shy away from showing Higgins’ selfish behavior, playing up both for humor but also for emphasis that his character wasn’t interested in Eliza as much as what she could become: a mirror to reflect his brilliance.
From details such as squeezing his hands repeatedly into fists to manic songs about what it means to be male, Mackintosh’s dislike and violence toward women were clear as day. Higgins was portrayed as unsure of how to manage in polite society, and yet somewhat was posing as “an expert” via linguistics.
The men in the play overwhelmingly used Eliza to create images of themselves that they wanted, rather than respecting her wishes and dreams for herself. Eliza sought out linguistic lessons so she could become a shop girl and sell her flowers formally in a store, rather than on the street. Her appearance at Higgins’ apartment quickly moves her away from that dream as the audience becomes obsessed with Higgins’ greater scheme: to prove his intelligence. As the staff danced through the house, the set changes shifted magically, rotating through what appeared to be an intricate Victorian home complete with details from the gilded age.
Eliza’s father, played with masterful wit and humor by Martin Fisher, sought to use Eliza for money and any advantage she could bring him. He first appears waiting for her to share money for his drink, but repeatedly appears throughout the story whenever it benefits him. His hysterical “Get Me To The Church On Time” darkly showed his own dislike for women extended beyond Eliza. Fisher’s dancing through the scene, while oddly pleasing, was also a hostile reminder that men in this story revile connection with women, regretting commitment and the restrictions women seem to bring.
And of course, there was Higgins’ conscience, Colonel Pickering played by Kevin Pariseau, a charming man who asked the right questions about how Eliza was being used, but never stopped the men from abusing her.
Only Freddy, the man who falls hard for Eliza at the horse races when she swears and authentically expresses her insights, seems to see the real Eliza and adore her for being herself. He tours her old haunts with her, never looking away or asking her to turn away from that life.
Somehow, “My Fair Lady” was a new performance to us. My mother’s jaw dropped at intermission when I suggested that Eliza, played by the confident soprano Shereen Ahmed, reminded me of a domestic violence victim. We debated how her treatment by Higgins, depriving her of food, forcing her to take on his values, and social isolation likely would result in harm to Eliza’s wellbeing.
Eliza found friendship in women throughout the play, too. The housekeeper urged her to rest when she was tired; Higgins’ mother urged her to resist her son’s treatment. Other women were interested and perplexed by her, recognizing perhaps in themselves what they experienced on some level. Leslie Alexander’s wise representation of Higgins’ mother was masterful and well-paced.
It was in one of the final scenes, though, when Eliza asked Higgins to treat her with kindness, and he responded that he treats “no one with kindness…I treat you like I treat everyone” that I saw and heard it clearly as a bell ringing. And it wasn’t “lover-ly.” The story I grew up believing to be a love story was, in fact, a story of power and control.
Prior to the show, my mother and I had shared dinner and discussed the Johnny Depp defamation trial. That real life drama is a civil matter, a court case proving not domestic violence but that Heard, Depp’s former wife, had defamed him for calling out his abusive behaviors. Heard never named Depp, but because she had the courage to talk out about her experiences of abuse, people were turning on her. We had mused that both people seemed unwell in that situation. I felt sad for Heard, the younger woman who initially reflected to Depp what he wanted to see, but eventually shattered the mirror with what she in reality saw: an addict who was not an admirable role model, but a sad individual in need of healing himself. Heard shattered Depp’s narcissistic mirror with her own reality.
And then sitting there in Proctor’s Theatre on opening night, I realized that “My Fair Lady” was shattering my youthful image of romantic love. It was all a ruse, I realized, from the very start. Higgins was using Eliza as a mirror for himself, never seeing that Eliza had goals and dreams of her own.
Proctors is showing “My Fair Lady” through the weekend. Go for the music. Be dazzled by the hypnotic costumes, especially the ball gown Eliza sparkles in as she walks down the steps at the ball. Sing along with the familiar tunes. Laugh with the jokes, and be soothed by the familiarity.
But be forewarned: you will leave with a bit of discomfort if you, like my mother and I, previously thought of this story as one of romantic love. The true love that emerged from this play was Eliza’s love for herself, an empowering message for everyone.
Editors Note: For a different take on My Fair Lady, read Bill Kellert’s review, here.