Solana Beach, CA—-Some might deem Willy Russell’s 1980’s comedy “Educating Rita” dated and irrelevant. It is, however, very current and well, quite relevant given the current state of our much maligned public educational system. Russell’s play takes us to a University in the North of England at a time when some major universities opened their doors to adults wanting to go back to school and, I know this sounds ironic, become better educated. The Open University or OU system has become a major success since. Then it was pretty new and a few professors signed up to be tutors.
When Rita (Meghan Andrews) came bursting through the door (that seems to be forever stuck) into Frank’s (Bjorn Johnson) book lined office he was taken aback at both her looks and demeanor. He was expecting a student, but evidentially not Rita. “D’y’ get a lot like me?” “I beg your pardon”. “Do you get a lot of students like me?” “No, not exactly”.
And so begins the dance called ‘Educating Rita’.
Rita is twenty-six and full of piss and vinegar; an eager beaver she wants to ‘know everything’. Frank hasn’t seen this side of twenty-six in more years than he can remember. His brain is a bit addled from too much drink. According to him his brain cells are “all dead long ago”.
Her given name is Susan but she changed it after reading Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” and ‘NO, he never changed His name. She makes reference to Elliot. He thinks it’s T.S. but in fact it’s Elliot Ness. She goes to Yates Wine Lodge. Oh! It’s not Yeats the poet? She tests his tolerance on her swearing and smoking and he offers her drinks stashed behind his book lined shelves.
Somewhere into the short (I stopped counting after 7 in the first act alone), vignette like scenes, they develop a repartee that suited them well until it didn’t. The surer of herself she became, the more he didn’t want her to change. Both exchange anecdotes about their respective mates; her husband wants her to stop working (she’s a hairdresser) and have babies, he’s pretty much disengaged in his marriage, his teaching career. He invites her to a dinner party at his house; she accuses him of inviting her so she can be the ‘entertainment’.
Into the mix, she writes, reads poetry, travels, attends other lectures and has serious conversations with other students on campus. In other words she is coming into her own and his drinking increases costing him his job at the university. This process plays out over the course of a year, which will end in her final exam.
Russell, who also penned the one-woman show “Shirley Valentine”, began his writing career as a songwriter. Commissioned to write a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company resulted in “Education Rita” which was ‘inspired by his own experience of returning to higher education’. “Educating Rita” was later made in to a movie starring British Actors Michael Caine and Julie Walters. It won London’s SWET Award for Best Comedy and in 1981 won an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay adaptation.
“Education Rita” has been likened to a modern day “Pygmalion” (coincidentally opening this week at The Old Globe) but I will take note with the comparison, which is neither here nor there. But just for you know what and giggles, Rita came to her decision on her own and wasn’t exploited whereas Eliza is a cruel snotty experiment that gets lots of laughs at the ‘flower girls’ expense. That’s just for starters, and now I’ll get off my bandwagon.
Director Rosina Reynolds has a competent enough protagonist and antagonist but there seems to be no chemistry between the two. Meghan Andrews’ Rita is at the top of her game and comes off as spunky, quirky, carefree and freewheeling. True enough Johnson is taken aback by his student, which is as it should be but truth is his performance falls flat after that. Watching her develop into the ‘woman she wants to be’ is rather refreshing while watching him try to keep up just never resonated. On opening night the dance they danced had no sense rhythm and for all we know they might just as well have been slow dancing with other partners.
Once again resident scenic designer Marty Burnett gives us just the right stuffy looking college professors office lined with books and artifacts important (at one time) to the occupant. Chris Luessmann’s sound design gives us the music needed with string quartet effects and Matthew Novotny’s lighting design takes us on day and night time meetings. Jeannie Galioto’s costumes might have been a little more outlandish in the beginning for Rita but grew more appropriate from her skin tight mini skirts to her flowing ‘prom dress’ as the play progressed. I lost count of how many sweaters Johnson had to slip on over the course of the two plus (or so it seemed with its fits and starts, blackouts and costume changes) hour show, but it seemed a lot.
‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard’. (Edmond King in “My Favorite Year”)
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Feb. 3rd
Organization: North Coast repertory Theatre
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, 92075
Ticket Prices: $37.00-$54.00