Director Anders Cato never intended to do playwright George Bernard Shaw's work. Cato, born and raised in Sweden before moving to the United States, always saw himself as someone who'd specialize in Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg.
But life interrupted and Cato found himself doing Shaw, whom he describes as "really sort of the natural next step coming out of that in the English language. He's much funnier, more accessible especially for an American audience. But he really comes out of the whole Ibsen movement, the new theater that was born then," Cato told Art Attack.
And so, for the second time in just a couple years (Cato directed Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession) , Cato is back at the Alley Theatre, directing a production of Shaw's Pygmalion - which a few years back morphed into the movie musical My Fair Lady.
But this is Shaw with his 1912 setting in London, which is not Hollywood. Which may mean a surprise for anyone expecting My Fair Lady sans music. It's close, but it's not exactly the same.
"The thing about this play is it's so entertaining, so funny, so romantic, such a fairy tale. At the same time as it goes so deep psychologically. It covers so many important questions. It's really Shaw at his best. Everything is so beautifully balanced. And we get that extraordinary combination we sometimes get with Shaw where you laugh really strongly one second and then the next you're grabbed by these big emotions," Cato said.
Cato has been working with some of the same Alley actors he directed in Mrs. Warren's Profession - Todd Waite was in the earlier play and is Henry Higgins in this one - and one he missed - actress Elizabeth Bunch who plays Eliza Doolittle.
"Vivie [the daughter in Mrs. Warren's Profession], was supposed to be played by Elizabeth Bunch. She managed to get pregnant and that's the one thing Vivie cannot be. At the last minute we had to bring in somebody from New York," Cato said.
The show starts with great sound and busyness - a rain storm upstage while everyone hurries about, Cato says. There's a lot of comedy as Henry Higgins attempts to remake the cockney speech and mannerisms of Eliza.
But as the play develops, especially as it moves into the second act, it becomes more serious.
"Shaw wanted to bring to English speaking theater was some of these movements [developed by Ibsen] of naturalism, realism. He talks about how at the end of the play there's really a discussion between Higgins and Eliza. What's going on between man and woman and between them in particular . We're ready to hear all these arguments which are really arguments reflecting a conflict within Shaw," Cato said.
And that conflict was a desire for true independence "and feeling that he did not want to be dependent on women that he was in love with. He felt every individual should have a certain strength and be autonomous," Cato said.
Shaw's plays hold up years later - this one's almost 100 years old - becuase "he was so bold and complex in his arguments," Cato says.
"There's nothing in this play that feels like it has gone out of date or has an expiration date. It's about what divides people concentrating of course on language here and the difference between the classes. But also of course it concentrates on the relationship between men and women," he says.
Cato says "Shaw is often done a great disservice. We hear that British accent and see those beautiful costumes and we think okay, it's not about us," Cato said. "I think that with Shaw you have to make sure these plays are not these sort of talking heads. That they are about ideas, and peoples' lives and sexuality. Even in the comedic situations it's about life and death situations. There needs to be sexuality in the plays there needs to be bodies there needs to be something violent, something passionate." Pgymalion runs May 25 through June 12 at the Alley Theatre. For ticket information go to www.alleytheatre.com or call 713.220.5700.