"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 April 27, 2015
In what was one of the great playoff victories in the history of the Milwaukee Bucks, they beat the Chicago Bulls Saturday night. Monday night they will try to repeat and steal one of the road against the Bulls at the United Center.
Published April 25, 2015
The final show for the Milwaukee Rep this season is a spectacular prequel to the story of Peter Pan, the boy who would never grown up. It's a show that will remind you of all the great bedtime stories you have ever heard.
Published April 24, 2015
The young Milwaukee Bucks have done well against the Chicago Bulls, but the game Saturday could be the last of the series. The team knows it needs fans to crank it up and will try to send the series back to Chicago for a game 5.
Published April 24, 2015
The Neil Simon play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is supposed to be a funny, semi-autobiographical tale set in the golden age of television. The play itself is funny but the current production at Theatre Unchained squeezes all the humor out of it.
Published April 23, 2015
The far right wing of the Republican Party is filled with wacko ideas. Here's the top 10 things that Republicans should be ashamed of, according to Dave Begel.
Published April 22, 2015
The Milwaukee Bucks played great basketball for three quarters in game two of the playoffs. But in the fourth quarter they got away from what they do best and the result was a win for Chicago. Game three is Thursday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Published April 21, 2015
Numbers and statistics can be misleading in all sports. But the numbers for the Milwaukee Brewers this season are absolutely frightening. Nobody expected this kind of performance.
Published April 20, 2015
Derrick Rose was a force to be reckoned with but the Bucks need to get back to the kind of team that got them into the playoffs before the second game of the series tonight.
Published April 19, 2015
"The Pillowman" at Soulstice Theatre is a powerful play, full of gruesome tales of the abuse and murder of children. But behind all the shock is the enlightenment of how powerful and precious stories are to all of us.
Published April 18, 2015
The adaptation of the P. G. Wodehouse books about the stiff upper lip butler and his boss, Bertie Wooster, comes alive at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. It's a night filled with laughter and more laughter.