Sunday, June 8, 2014

Educating Rita by Willy Russell

By Joe Straw

A snippet from As Good as It Gets – by Mark Andrus, James L. Brooks

“The compliment to you is:  The next morning, I started taking the pills.”- Melvin Udall

“ I don’t quite get how that’s a compliment for me.”  -  Carol Connelly

“You make we want to be a better man.” – Melvin

One thing you don’t want to hear or feel, as an actor in class when you are taking a curtain call, is a “smattering of applause”.  Those are the times when you want to curl up into a tight ball, sit with your legs crossed and arm wrapped around your head with only your right eye open looking out, hoping for a glimmer of “nice” constructive criticism that follows.

On this night most of the audience were made up of people who have seen a lot of theatre, been in theatre, or have worked in movies and theatre.  They know, they’ve seen it, what works, and what doesn’t.

Theatre Forty presents The 6th Production of the 2013-2014 Season, Educating Rita by Willy Russell, directed by Robert Mackenzie, and marvelously produced by David Hunt Stafford.  

There’s no question, Educating Rita, A Romantic Comedy by Willy Russell, is a marvelously written romantic comedy but after watching this production, I ask myself:  “What am I to make of this production, the characters, and the acting on this opening weekend?”  I’ll have more on this later.

There are two version of this play, one first performed in 1980 and another version written circa 2003 that brings events up to date.   Set in a professor’s office, the two acts are broken up into 7 short scenes in each act.

My take on the play is simple.  It is a story of an aging crapulous alcoholic English professor who cannot utter three simple words “I love you” to anyone. And of a student who needs the guidance to help her expand her vocabulary and her personal amorous horizons.  Obviously, it’s not part of the written dialogue but could easily be part of subtext, the inner dialogue, the noise within, and this happens when his vocabulary is sparged to the winds in hope of two lovers getting an education and coming together. Sounds simple.

The first thing Frank (Adrian Neil) can think of is his drink.  If he could only remember where he’s placed the darn bottle.  But before he can get to the drink he’s interrupted by a phone call from his girlfriend Julia.  They, don’t, really, get, along (based on the dialogue) and Frank says that he is going to the pub after his meeting.

And while Frank is on the phone, Rita (Murielle Zuker) interrupts by trying to get through the door.  Carrying the conversation on the phone, Frank yells at the door.

“Come in!  COME IN!” – Frank

“I am comin’ in, aren’t I?  It’s that stupid bleedin’ handle on the door.  Y’ wanna get it fixed!” – Rita

Rita’s first point on conversation is the nude painting on the wall only because the tutor is avoiding her. And the only way she can drag him into the conversation is pointing out the eroticism displayed of the forgotten painting on the wall.

Rita takes off her coat and displays a dress that appears to be painted on – it is so tight – with orange, green, and white horizontal stripes.  

“D’ y’ get a lot like me?” – Rita

“I beg your pardon?” – Frank

“Do you get a lot of students like me?” – Rita

“Not exactly, no.” – Frank

Rita offers Frank cigarettes but Frank declines and offers her a glass of scotch.  He finds another bottle behind a stack of E.M. Forster’s books and lays the books on the table next to Rita.  When he comes back to the table with the drinks, the curious professor peers at the title of one of the books.

“Howard Ends?” – Frank

“Yeh.  Sounds filthy, doesn’t it?  E.M. Foster.” – Rita

“Forster!” – Frank

“Forced her to do what?” – Rita

This is too much work for Frank.  He doesn’t stand a chance to capturing the ravishing Rita.  His life would be better off in a pub drinking and thinking of things that could have been.

In any case, Frank says he doesn’t know anything anyway and she would be better off getting another tutor, someone who could help her.  Rita’s a little peeved, grabs her stuff and runs out of the office.

Immediately Rita chooses to come back.  But the door jams and Frank is not letting her in.

Frank yells through the door telling her to go away, but Rita doesn’t give up so easily and manages to burst through.

“I’ve told you, I don’t want to teach you.  Why come to me?” – Frank

“Because you’re a crazy mad piss artist who wants to throw his students through the window.  An’ I like you. – Rita

In a nutshell that is the first scene and enough to give one an idea of where this is all going.  The acting is marvelous, with just little tidbits missing.  One can attribute this to opening weekend and once the actors settle, well, it will be a very fine production.

But, I would like to talk about a few things.

A very peculiar action of walking to the phone in the first scene, Andrian Neil playing Frank, throws me for a moment. The stride to the phone doesn’t ring true, that funny gate. Frank doesn’t want to be there, period.  He doesn’t want to teach. The fastest thing he wants to do is to get to the pub. (That walk still has me in a quandary.) Neil answers the rotary phone immediately knowing who’s on the other line. While all this is going on the pounding on the door is a slight distraction rather than a significant action to keep that person out. This opening needs work and that will come with more performances under his belt. Also, there’s more to be said about defining the character’s specific traits to give the actor a creative edge in presenting a professor on stage.  The line “You make me want to be a better man.” from As Good As It Gets is an illustration of Frank’s character in laying off of the bottle during the better part of the play while he is trying to woe her, and I didn’t see that action on stage.  All right, let’s not throw out everything; only add to an already nice performance that had a number of marvelous moments throughout, remembering, all the while, this is a romantic comedy.  

Murielle Zuker is marvelous as Rita.  She is a stunning actor who manages to get most from her performance. The pencil-sharpening bit defines her character as someone who will stop at nothing to get it her way. The 14 costume changes are a testament to her dedication and determination on stage. But, what gets in Rita’s way?  Clearly she is not obsequious chattel to his teachings demands.  But when it comes to his amorous musings toward her being, she playfully tells him to “sod off” more than once.   Maybe it’s the age thing, and it’s something she must think about in order to make this romantic comedy pay off.

Robert Mackenzie does a fine job directing this romantic comedy, a term which has many meanings. For me, it’s two people falling in love with a happy ending however that happens.  Willy Russell, the writer, seems to have written it that way.  In this version there was never a moment when Rita contemplated, or even questioned her relationship with him; and where is the romantic comedy in that?  We see that Rita is emotionally connected but we don’t see the action that brings these two together. What we have is a student/teacher relationship and that border is not crossed.  (In real life that is not considered appropriate.  Still, it happens.  But on stage, it’s a different matter and anything creative is fair game.) Also, the ending is written in such a way that she wants to take 10 years off his life.  What in the world could she have been thinking throughout the play if she is not thinking about their relationship and if there’s ever a possibility that it will ever work?  Also, there are a number of moments when the actors need to take a moment and respond.  Two come to mind. One, when the professor makes inappropriate comments to the student. 

“Ah, but Rita, if I was yours would I even consider stopping out for days?” - Frank

And two when the professor kisses the student on the cheek. Both passed with little fanfare and also did not significantly change the relationship.

Also,  there is a fantastic moment when Rita discovers the theatre.  It is a moment where you want to stand and cheer and well worth the price of admission! 

Willy Russell, the writer, has written a marvelous play.  There is a tremendous amount of information gained by watching the play, about books, theatre, and education.

Michéle Young, Costume Designer, plays a major role in having Rita dress to perfection.

Jeff G. Rack does a marvelous job as the Set Designer for a set that is altered for another show running in repertory.

Other members of this delightful crew are as follows:

Stage Manager – Tony Carnaghi
Lighting Designer – Ric Zimmerman
Sound Designer – Bill Froggatt
Stage Hand – Richard Carner
Stage Hand – Abbie Siegel

Run!  Run!  And take a professor you’ve had your eyes on for a very long time.

in the Reuben Cordova Theatre

Parking is always free!

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