“Educating Rita;” Enabling Frank
At the Theatre with Audrey Linden
In the exhilarating production of Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita” at Theatre 40, if I had one word to describe the play, it would be enervating. It definitely was enervating, and at times the pace was annoyingly fast. Director, Robert Mackenzie kept the audience awake with his pacing. There were few lulls, and the intermission gave a welcome respite. That being said, the deliberate contrast between pondering Frank and the rapid Rita worked well to show the contrast. The play, written in 1980, pitted the older, slower literature professor, Frank, so well-acted by Adrian Neil, with the explosive, exuberant Rita. Murielle Zuker could slow down her performance a mite. Both actors were convincing and balanced each other, and are to be commended for maintaining “veddy” good, “spot on” British accents. Adrian Neil is British, but Murielle hails from Chile. Overall, the play was enjoyable, despite the pacing in Act 1.
The film version done in 1983 starred Michael Caine as Frank and Julie Waters as Rita. It would not be fair to compare anyone to Michael Caine, so I won’t. Russell’s play contrasts the older professor, who has given up on writing poetry in exchange for rounds at the pub. Frank is a divorced has-been who is content to coast by and rest on his laurels. He tucks his scotch behind works of literature in his bookcase. He prefers to go and get “pissed” at his local pub rather than show up for the ratatouille his live-in girlfriend, ex-student, has slaved over. He has taken on a tutoring assignment with a student from the “Open University”, and he expects to be bored. Wrong. Dead wrong.
The ebullient Rita bursts into the scene in Frank’s office. She is there as a student from the “Open University” because she is desperate to better herself. This lower class hairdresser wants an education so she can change her life. Rita thinks an education will give her what the upper classes have; a choice. But, Frank wonders if it will it lead to a choice for the better. He admires her openness and frankness. But, that simplistic way Rita has will not help her pass the college exams she must take. Frank has to change Rita. And, by his own example, Frank is educated and a professor, but he is not happy with his lot in life.
At their first meeting, Frank tries to discourage the education-starved Rita to no avail. She wants something from him. And it is clear Frank is attracted to her. “You’re the first breath of air that’s walked into this room in years.” Frank feels he is “an appalling teacher in order with appalling students.” Neil does a fine job in bringing the aging hippie-professor to life. He is disarmingly charming, and I hoped his Frank would get his act together.
While Zuker had a repetitive and fast way of entering the scenes, when Zuker’s Rita was listening to Frank, she was totally involved. Her expressions showed a deep and attentive thoughtfulness in those silences. The silences are challenges for actors, and Zuker showed what a fine actress she is. I could literally see her mind working. Her expressions, when she was wound up over seeing “Mc Beth” were priceless. And she made the lines fresh and new.
Frank does not want to take on the assignment, but he needs the money. He likes his life the way it is. He can take a nip of booze, hidden behind a book and take solace in his office. And, a well-designed office Jeff G. Rack has given the characters to have their tutoring sessions in. The walls are olive with wainscoting, bookshelves, desk-table, paintings on the wall, Persian rug, etc. The set had a nice open feel to it.
Frank introduces Rita to E. M. Forster’s “Howard’s End” which she hates. Why? Rita found a sentence in the book which showed Forster did not care about the plight of the poor, which makes his book trash and rubbish in her mind. Rita finds “Peer Gynt” better suited to radio. Rita can sum it all up in one or two sentences, but she needs to learn to expound and write essays for the exam ritual. She cannot have sentimentality and must be objective. In short, she cannot be the Rita she is now, and Frank admires this honest and endearing Rita. He has "one thousand things he’d like to do" with her besides educate her.
Frank and Rita are an odd couple. Rita wants to better herself. Frank does not want to be challenged. He is in an enjoyable rut and wants to maintain the status quo. He does not want Rita to “abandon her uniqueness.”
In Act 2, after the dramatic arc, hurricane Rita eclipses and surpasses her tutor. That is difficult for Frank to take. After all, he created this new Rita. He gave her knowledge and she is the product of his teaching. That becomes part of the dramatic climax. Does Rita have a mind of her own? Or is she parroting Frank? What happened to her direct and simplistic way of expressing herself? Is she espousing Frank’s words or her own? Will she come into her own? Will she see through Frank? Will she expect Frank to change? Will she “find a culture or merely sing a different song?” That is the heart of this well-wrought play.
There is something of a grand deception going on in this play. Is Rita “less than” or is Frank? Many questions are raised regarding people’s station in life, the importance of an education, the lack of education and society, and the importance of growing and changing. And, if you see the play, you will find your own set of questions to ponder. It is an interesting dilemma and a fascinating play Willy Russell gave us. The questions he poses are just as relevant now as they were in 1980.
“Educating Rita” runs through June 23rd at Theatre 40’s Reuben Cordova Theatre located at the BHHS campus at 241 Moreno Dr. in Beverly Hills. Ample free parking is provided in the parking structure. Call 310-364-0535 for tickets. This play runs in tandem with “The Love List” directed by Howard Storm, which opens May 29th.
Audrey Linden is a writer, actress and singer. She can be seen in a long-running “Associated Tax Resolution” commercial, two “Little Caesars” spots, a “Teva International Pharmaceutical” short, Gene Simmons’ “Family Jewels,” “America’s Court with Judge Ross,” VHS “Tough Love 2,” “Wendy’s” etc. “Sensationails” commercial and print.
Audrey teaches ON CAMERA COMMERCIAL and IMPROV COMEDY WORKSHOPS through the City of Beverly Hills. To register, call 310-285-6850. Her classes are held at 241 Moreno Dr. B.H. 90212. Her classes are on-going in June through July for summer. IMPROV COMEDY is 4 weeks starting June 9th through July 7th with no class June 30th. ON CAMERA COMMERCIALS starts June 5th and is 5 sessions through July 10th no class on July 3rdFor more information, go to www.beverlyhills.com/bhregonline and contact Audrey at firstname.lastname@example.org