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Originally published Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Actor slips easily into Prof. Higgins' shoes in 'Pygmalion'

Mark Anders plays the arrogant London speech specialist, who on a bet sets out to prove he can turn a raggedy flower peddler into a grand lady. A Seattle Shakespeare Company production of "Pygmalion," through March 11.

Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER PREVIEW

'Pygmalion'

By George Bernard Shaw. Friday-March 11, produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company at Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$40 (206-733-8222 or www.seattleshakespeare.org).
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"I was a bit surprised," says Mark Anders, explaining his reaction to an invitation from Seattle Shakespeare Company to play Henry Higgins in a new staging of George Bernard Shaw's witty classic "Pygmalion," at Intiman Theatre.

One of Shaw's most memorable characters, Higgins is a brainy, egotistic London phonetician (speech specialist), who bets he can turn a raggedy flower peddler into a grand lady — mainly by altering how she speaks.

Anders is a veteran Seattle actor and co-founder of the Endangered Species Project play-reading series. He knows Higgins is nearly synonymous with Rex Harrison — best known for his star turn as a balding, late-middle-aged, debonair Higgins in the hit film "My Fair Lady," which is a musical version of "Pygmalion" that Harrison also starred in, on Broadway.

Anders is no stand-in for Harrison. With his lanky blond hair and youthful face, he doesn't look old enough to be the proud dad of a 21-year old daughter (which he is).

And in recent years he's been pegged as "that piano guy," for co-starring in the musical "2 Pianos, 4 Hands" at Seattle Repertory Theatre and around the country.

But "Pygmalion" director Jeff Steitzer considered Anders and Higgins a good fit and says, "Mark has been undervalued as an actor over the years, especially since it became known that he plays the piano."

Other pluses: Anders is a whiz with Brit dialects, and, Steitzer adds,"has a boyishness that supports the description of Higgins as an overgrown child ... "

Once cast, Anders delved into the psyche of his stage alter-ego, a "mercurial" sort who "is meant to be about 40, and Eliza Doolittle" — his scruffy protégé — "is 19 or 20. The age difference isn't so pronounced here as in the movie — or so creepy!"

The "creepiness" can result from the dynamic between Higgins and young Eliza, in a 1912 play Shaw labeled "a romance in five acts."

As Steitzer points out, even that term is suspect, "since Shaw's idea of romance was hardly a conventional one."

Which brings us to a lingering question: does Higgins, a confirmed bachelor, fall in love with the feisty woman he forcefully tries to remold? In "My Fair Lady," the answer is a definite yes. In "Pygmalion," their relationship is more ambiguous.

Anders votes for love — if not lasting love. "It's like those screwball comedies where a couple bicker, bicker, bicker but are actually equal to one another." But, "It wouldn't work between them in the end because they're both such strong alpha personalities."

In another intriguing choice, Steitzer's production weaves Shaw's eloquent stage directions into the spoken text.

"Pygmalion" opens Friday, and features Jennifer Lee Taylor as Eliza, and Jeanne Paulsen as Henry's wise mother — "the only woman," says Anders, "who can pull the rug from under him."

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