Entries in Educating Rita (1)

Tuesday
Jan222013

Commentary: Educate Yourself at Renaissance Theaterworks

What can be so powerful about an education, formal or otherwise? Willy Russell’s 1980 British play Educating Rita provides several answers that resonate in a completely contemporary context.  Renaissance Theaterworks opened the production this weekend under Jenny Wanasek’s masterful direction of Midwest actors Jonathan Smoots (from American Players Theatre) and Cristina Panfilio (who also debuted at American Players Theatre this year), in a compelling evening of theater.

The acting pair recreate a middle aged, Open University Professor named Frank and a married hairdresser who calls herself Rita using disarming affection and humor. While the action occurs in a richly decorated English college library (courtesy of Scenic Designer Steve Barnes) where Rita’s incredibly colorful and hip costumes (designed by Alex Tacoma) shine, this winning combination unfolds a deliciously funny play that rarely appears dated.  There’s so much more to Russell’s themes than the addicted to alcohol Frank attempting to help the working class Rita pass her university exams.

A deep longing in Rita’s young heart (she’s 26) questions her purpose in life instead of merely her social status. She senses there are more choices involved in day-to-day living than how many kinds of ale or brew to enjoy at the local pub. Rita’s exactly right and her friends disapprove of her searching for that “more,” a greater understanding to the human existence and so Rita needs courage to continue. Franks wants to help Rita attain her university degree, jumping through the appropriate protocol, without transforming her unique curiosity into merely “cultured” jargon. 

Perhaps what Rita comes to believe is that education provides opportunities for immense personal choice. When Rita’s husband throws her out of the marriage for avoiding having a baby, Rita knows her education may provide her with more choices than the ones merely expected of her. However, having a university degree and becoming more “educated” only gives an individual a process to make informed choices. An education in itself will never be the measure of personal happiness or success, or provide every answer to life's difficutl questions. Yet, the searching and process allows anyone on this journey the opportunity to choose and find their way. 

Rita and Frank are on their own search where Panifilio and Smoots portray Russell’s frail and very human characters with poignant, sympathetic clarity allowing each their own dignity. When the audience reaches the last minutes of the play, Renaissance provides the perfect evening to realize the power of educating oneself to choice. Whether one’s situation is desperate or fulfilling, educating oneself to new possibilities is an unfailing challenge Frank and Rita illustrate.

Renaissance Theaterworks illustrates these same possibilities in many of the plays they have produced, including this enchanting production. Twenty years ago these determined women chose to begin a very rare theater company, one run entirely by women. Women who also chose to have babies, chose to be of service. chose to make a difference in the Milwaukee Theater community. Some are married, some are single, some were divorced and remarried, some have children, others have none, still other members chose another path during this 20 year’s time to pursue other challenges.  

As the company once again faces change with Marie Kohler moving from Co-Artistic Director to Playwright in Residence and Dramaturg, these wonderfully cultured women through their personal and theater voices show individuals the power of educated choice. Choice combined with confronting the changes necessary to endure throughout ordinary life. Lives that chose to make a significant difference from the heart and soul and embody the very essence of the formal and informal education this delightful young woman character exemplifies in the company’s soul-searching Educating Rita.   

Renaissance Theaterworks presents Educating Rita in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through February 10. For further information on the May 9 fundraiser or tickets, please call 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan