"Educating Rita" is a well-known play with a predictable arc and two characters we have seen often in the worlds of theater, literature and film.
But watching "Educating Rita" as it opened at Renaissance Theaterworks Saturday night was like being in a recital hall watching Rudolph Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn dance a foxtrot while Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra.
One brilliant director and two brilliant actors took a play and a story that everybody knows and carried it into a cloud of rapture that made me wonder if I was holding my breath for the entire two acts.
Under the gentle and patient guidance of director Jenny Wanasek, actors Jonathan Smoots and Christina Panfilio could have stood on stage and read the phone book and held us just as spellbound as they did opening night.
Make no mistake about it. This story is one we've seen a million times. Think of "Pygmalion," "My Fair Lady," "Pretty Woman," "Sabrina" or "Million Dollar Baby." They are all variations on the same theme as is "Educating Rita."
There is a girl who has no grace or sophistication or ability. She gets hooked up with a much smarter man, a professor or businessman or coach or millionaire. He has his demons, but undertakes to change the girl. She wants to change and thinks he is the key to helping her on her journey.
She fights and fidgets while he succumbs to whatever vice he has, be it snobbery or alcoholism and everything in between. One or the other starts to feel some romantic stirrings, while the other remains obliviously aloof and unaware.
Eventually she grows into the lily she wanted to be, grateful for the periodic watering provided by the man. And fully grown, he begins to feel useless, unwanted, saddened by her growth. She understands his sadness and claims he liked it better when she was a dummy, wondering where her next bit of growth would come from.
And it ends with everybody happy. She's smart. He relaxes from the tension of wanting more of her than she is giving. And we all go home.
Now let's talk about this production and let's start with Wanasek, the director, who has a lengthy and proud history as both an actor and director in Milwaukee.
At some point she must have realized that the story she had been handed was not unique or surprising. And she had enough insight to understand that to raise this production out of the ordinary, she needed to allow the focus to be on the actors, the people in the play, not the story.
It was a brilliant directorial decision and one that required a director who understands how actors work and how they can carry a play.
The two actors in this play were an equal match for Wanasek.
Smoots, who is well-known to Milwaukee audiences, creates a character we love, pity and wonder about all in the space of a little over 90 minutes. He has incredible discipline as an actor and allows Frank both parry and thrust like a skilled swordsman faced with an unconventional opponent and his own private demons.
Panfilio, who plays Rita, is, very simply, a transcendent figure on stage. Early on she is the hairdresser from Liverpool with an undirected lust in her heart to learn "everything." Her journey is full of humor, sex appeal, naivete, and surprise. It would have been easy for her to end her performance as a totally transformed trophy for Frank. But she maintains her Liverpudlian roots and allows the new girl to fill her head but not her heart, which remains as true and unsullied as it was at the beginning of her journey.
It is difficult to express in words the performances in this play. We have seen a lot of good and great acting in Milwaukee so far this season. But what happens in "Educating Rita" is something very, very special.
"Educating Rita" runs through Feb. 10th. Information can be obtained at r-t-w.com
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published July 28, 2015
After several previous failed attempts Downtown and in Walker's Point, Silk Exotic applied once more yesterday for a Downtown location, this time at 804 N. Milwaukee St.
Published July 28, 2015
As Green Bay Packers training camp opens and the pro football season gets started, it's easy to have a whole bunch of things to anticipate with joy. Perhaps at the top of the list is that the Packers are one of the favorites to make it to the 50th Super Bowl in San Francisco. But I'm looking forward to something much more specific.
Published July 28, 2015
Who would ever expect to find some of the best soul food in Milwaukee in the North Shore suburb of Shorewood? The answer may be nobody, but you'd be wrong, especially if you haven't visited Nino's Southern Sides on Oakland Avenue.
Published July 27, 2015
Tuesday is a big day for the Milwaukee Bucks as the State Assembly is slated to take up the measure to provide $250 million in financing for the new downtown arena. If the bill is amended, and Democrats are going to fight for amendments, the measure will go back to the State Senate.
Published July 24, 2015
In a place that has hosted such decadent theater as a blistering "Cabaret" and a shockingly brutal "Trainspotting" it is stunningly surprising to find a morality play being staged in the tiny black box of Off The Wall Theatre.But that's what you get with the production of "Spring Awakening," the multiple Tony Award winning musical with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik.
Published July 23, 2015
For the past two decades the Milwaukee Bucks have disproved a fear that former Milwaukee Brewers' owner Bud Selig had when it was time to build Miller Park. And the historic presence of the Bradley Center can provide confidence that Selig's fears will not resurface when the new arena is built.
Published July 21, 2015
The ceremony Saturday to retire Brett Favre's number and put him in the Packers Hall of Fame was a touching and emotional evening. It was quintessential Favre, drawing up a play in the dirt. But it was nearly ruined for the folks at home by a terribly lackluster WTMJ broadcast.
Published July 20, 2015
Brett Favre will be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame Saturday. The retired quarterback joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Paul Molitor as players who left Wisconsin under difficult circumstances but later were honored for their contributions.
Published July 16, 2015
Nothing is as exciting as watching young athletes try to qualify and make it to the big leagues. The Symmetry tour is for young women trying to make it to the LPGA tour and the Potawatomi are sponsoring a tournament with these players at Brown Deer Park golf course.
Published July 16, 2015
Governor Scott Walker has pitched his flag and declared that he is the kind of candidate who will stand up to all opposition and do what he believes is right. That dogmatic image of the fighter may not be enough to get him to the presidency.