"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 Oct. 23, 2014
Betrayal, revenge, a little more betrayal, a little more revenge, then even more revenge and a white lace handkerchief. That's about all you have to know about "My Dear Othello," the Theatre Gigante production opening tonight at the Kenilworth Studio 508 Theater.
Published Oct. 23, 2014
When you want to decide who to vote for in a particular election -- like the governor's race that's on our doorstep -- probably the absolute worst way to get information about the candidates is through television or radio ads. There is probably nothing more inaccurate of deceitful than these ads which are created by campaigns, parties and various support groups.
Published Oct. 21, 2014
The Green Bay Packers destroyed the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, and were leading, 21-0, after one quarter. It led me to wonder: is it better, or more fun to watch, a rout or a nail-biter.
Published Oct. 20, 2014
It was just a rehearsal - no costumes, no set, no orchestra, no chorus, no plush seats, no lights on stage. As a matter of fact, there was no stage at all, just a piano. And the whole thing was in German. In spite of all of those things that weren't there, the thing that was there was a fascinating story and some amazing voices that told the story with such romance and strength that I followed the whole thing from my folding chair.
Published Oct. 19, 2014
From "Romeo and Juliet" to "Love Story," the tale of youngsters who fall in love, only to see death and a search for meaning in it all is so often told that it seems to have become almost a cliche of itself. But when that story gets mixed with history and put into the hands of a small coterie of very creative people, the story creates the kind of theatrical magic that comes only on occasion. That's what happened when "Amelia" opened Saturday night.
Published Oct. 18, 2014
Most of the time when a play opens, it's easy to figure out who the star is - usually an actor with a major part. Sometimes, the star can be something else, like a director or a composer or a costume designer. Rarely would anybody pick a lighting designer as the star, unless they see the wonderful production of "Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars" that opened the season for First Stage.
Published Oct. 17, 2014
Alchemist Theatre billed "Suicide Sleep"as its Halloween show, but nobody in the audience was trembling or closing their eyes to keep phantoms away. Instead, they were all on the edge of their seats - as was I - riveted with curiosity about just where this journey was going to take us.
Published Oct. 16, 2014
The second and last televised debate between Scott Walker and Mary Burke is tomorrow night from 7 to 8 p.m. and I've got a couple of suggestions for you. Walk your dog. Clip your toenails. Call your mother. Organize your kitchen cupboard. Order a pizza. Clean out your email folders. Sleep. Anything! Anything to avoid this farce being perpetrated on the people of Wisconsin.
Published Oct. 14, 2014
I support the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in its battle to keep the old Milwaukee Arena (now the UWM Panther Arena) from meeting the wrecking ball in order to build a new Downtown arena. One, I love the building's history. Two, there is a better spot for a new arena.
Published Oct. 13, 2014
There's hardly anything I admire more than a chef who can take wildly different flavors, put them on a plate and serve something that is more delicious than you ever imagined. That admiration was reinforced Friday when I stopped for breakfast at Peter Sandroni's Engine Company No. 3.