"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 3, 2015
Sports can bring joy and jubilation and it's about the best feeling in the world. But the flip side of that coin is the sadness that comes in the world of sports. Here's seven things that make me sad and I just hope someday I can recover.
Published July 2, 2015
Wisconsin's basketball scene is undergoing change. The Milwaukee Bucks are going to go after a big name free agent, and it's apparent the Bucks are real players this year. That addition, however, is tempered by the loss, after next year, of Bo Ryan. He's going to be missed.
Published July 2, 2015
It was almost by accident that I discovered a perfectly legal ripoff from a car rental company. But that one seems to be almost small potatoes compared to the scandal of fake reviews that plague the internet.
Published July 1, 2015
The Women's World Cup is turning out to be yet another example of why soccer is called "the beautiful game." Here are six reasons to love watching the tournament.
Published June 30, 2015
The No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the world, Germany and the United States, will meet tonight for a berth in the final of the Women's World Cup. Both teams were favored to win the tournament before it started and the game feels like it should be the final.
Published June 29, 2015
Just one day after the nation was rocked to its foundation by the Supreme Court decision to honor love in all its forms the story of another love that blossomed as the world was changing came to our attention. It's the APT production of "Pride and Prejudice."
Published June 29, 2015
Pity is a coomplex thing but it's relatively easy int he world of sports. There are good guys and bad guys and we like some of them and dislike others. It's all a big pity party.
Published June 28, 2015
"The Island" is a play about the brutality and pain of apartheid in South Africa. But it is also more than that - a tale about the obligation to protest against unworthy conditions. It is a difficult and meaningful play to watch.
Published June 26, 2015
The Milwaukee Bucks, who didn't have much shooting in their arsenal last season, went for exactly that in both the NBA draft and a draft-night trade. Rashad Vaughn, a shooter from UNLV, and Greivis Vasquez, a veteran shooter from the Toronto Raptors, will join the Milwaukee Bucks.
Published June 25, 2015
Summerfest was nothing more than grass and mud in the early days, the level of excitement soon took on a massive personality. The Beach Boys played after a driving rainstorm and Orbison was a wonderful gentleman.