Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"Educating Rita" - A Theatrical Duet, Remarkably Well Done

Although the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre (PICT for short) has been around for 19 years, I’ve only managed to see two of its productions, and these were the last two of its plays, viewed back to back.
Alas! Unlike Edith Piaff who sang "Non, je ne regrette rien" (I Regret Nothing) with believable credulity, I seem to have, at this stage of life, more regrets than dollars. One of the latest is not being able to catch more of PICT’s previous productions.
Impressed with my initial PICT encounter, a staging of "Sharon’s Grave" (you can read my review below on this blog), I was equally enthralled with its current opus, "Educating Rita," a work by Willy Russell that I hadn’t seen for years and one that left me with a rather humdrum first impression. This time around, I discovered more enjoyment, more insight and more food for thought in a production that starred two remarkably talented actors - Martin Giles as professor Frank Bryant and Karen Baum as Rita.
Set in 1970 Liverpool, England, the play opens with Giles, back to the audience, searching his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in his university office for a specific book. The play, while tackling some weighty issues, also has a significant comedic content, and I’d prefer not to spoil Russell’s opening parry of humor by giving away the object of Giles’ search.
Before long, Rita comes knocking on the door, a swollen barrier reluctant to open despite frequent shoves and pushes. A hairdresser from a working class neighborhood, she comes in search of education and self-improvement with a zeal that captures the attention of the professor assigned to tutor her in literature.
One would imagine that a waif from the blue collar zone might be intimidated by the hallowed halls of learning, but not this Rita. She comes on with a wide-eyed zeal that shows not an inkling of shrinking before her intellectual superior. Director Alan Stanford establishes a psycho/social equilibrium between the two characters from the start that maintains itself throughout the play.
As the professor and former poet, Giles’ character is suffering from academic  malaise with self-doubt about both his ability to teach and to write. Disillusioned with his students, career and personal life, he retreats into heavy drinking that seems to cloud over his ennui or a least make it somewhat endurable.
Both characters are contrasting opposites. While the cynical professor is mired in exhaustion, Rita is full of enthusiastic optimism hoping to better herself. While her husband Denny is content to enjoy pints at the pub and while away his time with Karaoke, Rita is looking for not only a different song to sing but a new venue in which to sing it.
The play shows both characters undergoing rapid transformation, although each seems headed in opposite directions. Giles senses that Rita’s very attraction, which largely centers on her  spontaneity, freshness and lack of guile, is imperiled by her growing ever more rigid as she conforms to academic discipline and conformity to university standards and a dampening of her joie de vivre. Instead of bringing the two closer together on an intellectual plane, Rita’s ever-growing knowledge and the independence it brings seems to be making them more distant.
Despite knocking down a few too many, Giles never plays the drunk on stage, although references are made to his bouts with the bottle in the script. He remains in control of himself at all times with a soft-handed demeanor and a crisp and waggish though cynical sense of humor.
As Rita, Baum is required to show the nuances of a character undergoing rapid  changes that increase her self-confidence and self-esteem and impact her life style significantly. These she portrays quite well with assistance from Giles’ more stable characterization that serves as a solid sounding board for the piquant interplay of dialogue.
For those intending to go, "Educating Rita" is a rollicking roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs that daringly opens up questions about inner growth, change, the value and purpose of education, class and choice. Without providing many answers by curtain fall, the play is an entertaining and provocative stimulus for the same type of self-examination for the audience that Rita eventually undergoes while getting "educated." Perhaps, as Rita suggests, there’s more to living than the mere acquisition of material goods and just plodding along in step with the crowd.
Now at the Charity Randall Theatre inside the Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh, "Educating Rita," a production of the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, plays through September 19. For tickets, phone 412-561-6000 or visit website picttheatre.org.

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