Matthew Reddin

“Educating Rita” earns high marks

Renaissance Theaterworks' latest show builds off Shaw's "Pygmalion," but takes the conversation in its own direction.

By - Jan 20th, 2013 01:31 pm

Rita (Cristina Panfilio) and Frank (Jonathan Smoots) are brought together as tutor and pupil when Rita enrolls in the Open University to better herself. Photos courtesy Renaissance Theaterworks.

Certainly the easiest way to describe Renaissance Theaterworks’ Educating Rita, by Willy Russell, is to call it a riff on Shaw’s Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady. It has its Eliza Dolittle in Rita White (Cristina Panfilio), a rough-around-the-edges hairdresser; it has its Henry Higgins, Frank Bryant (Jonathan Smoots), a perpetually soused, cynical career academic. And as the play opens, we feel ourselves on the familiar track of each character changing the other, but only one of them realizing the changes immediately.

So you certainly could call the play Pygmalionic, but that would be lazy. Renaissance’s production is anything but. Educating Rita has depths all its own, and Panfilio, Smoots and director Jenny Wanasek plumb them without hesitation or fear.

While their relationship is initially uneven in Frank’s favor, Rita’s rise in academia destabilizes their friendship.

The play’s beginnings suggest nothing more than the familiar hints of the archetype. Rita, a late-20s, working-class girl wants to learn “everything.” She enrolls in England’s Open University, an avenue for non-traditional students to earn their degrees. Frank, a barely functioning alcoholic, has taken on a single student – Rita – to tutor, never anticipating what will come of it.

Smoots plays the reluctant tutor well, comically hunting down bottles of scotch hidden at the back of his bookshelves and delivering his lines with a droll sense of humor. Panfilio matches him with an equally dry delivery a little against the grain of her heavily accented, mile-a-minute-speech, near-manic pacing and exploring. That dry wit hints that she’s smart enough to change.

Cue “The Rain in Spain?” Not quite. The script wisely keeps Rita’s changes internal at first and not very romantic. When the playwright has Frank flirt with her, Smoots plays the move too hard and it’s jarring. He, and the play, are at their best when they stay away from messy things like sentimentality, save the last scene of the first act, where Rita breaks into tears over a fight with her unsupportive husband. Panfilio makes this moving moment one of the play’s best.

This is where My Fair Lady would break into romance, but the second act turns that on its head. Rita, cast out of the working class-culture she was born into, adopts the academic mannerisms so loathed by Frank, who condemns her for exchanging actual education for a new class structure.

Frank’s concerns are clearly legitimate, but there’s a truth to Rita’s rebuttal: that he is simply jealous of her, emotionally and professionally. Wanasek flatters us by not having the argument lean one way or the other. Much like Rita, we have to find out the answers for ourselves.

Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Educating Rita runs through February 10 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $36 and can be ordered at (414) 291-7800 or the RTW website.

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