On a night when the eastbound side of the Schuylkill Expressway was shut down due to a mudslide, on a night when people were running down South Street to escape the rain, on a night when I saw a couple leap in perfect tandem in their dress clothes to miss a puddle, a little play called EDUCATING RITA was performed at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5. As I sat there in this 52-seat black box theatre looking down upon the production (not up) from my seat, I found myself listening to the pouring rain on the roof, and being very glad that I was in this very intimate space. Quince Productions chose the best possible theatre for this play, as the audience was extremely close to the actors. I almost felt like I was privy to conversations between two people, rather than attending a play.
EDUCATING RITA, written by Willy Russell, and directed by Rich Rubin, is a two-person play, with one set and very, very limited costume changes. It takes place in Liverpool in the 1980s over the course of a year. Rita, a twenty-six year old hairdresser, decides that she wants a different life than the one she has been living, so she decides to get “educated”. She enrolls in an Open University course in Literature tutored by Dr. Frank Bryant. Frank wants the tutorship for nothing more than to pay for the alcohol that he keeps stored behind his office books. He immediately becomes intrigued by Rita’s approach to life and finds her a breath of fresh air from the usual students he has to put up with. As the play progresses, Frank desperately tries to balance teaching Rita what she needs to write to pass her exam and preventing her from losing her free spirit.
The amount of dialogue in EDUCATING RITA is staggering. Since the play is a series of conversations that take place between two people over the course of a year, one would think this would be easy to act. Michael Hagan (Frank) and Alexis Newbauer (Rita) made it look easy, but I’m sure it was anything but. Not only did they have to memorize the dialogue, but they also had to get different English accents down. Frank’s accent is from Northern England and Rita’s is from Liverpool. Hagan, as Frank, is always on the verge of drunkenness, slurring his words every so slightly, until the scene when he is completely and utterly smashed (doing much of his dialogue laying down on the carpet in his office). He is a master at facial expressions, somehow getting a mixture of bewilderment, infatuation, amusement, and exasperation on his face at the same time. Newbauer, making her debut in Philadelphia, is exactly the right combination of bubbly, brazen, joy, and fear that is needed in the role of Rita. I am sure that Philadelphia will be seeing her many more times in the future.
In a play with a minimal amount of actors, costumes, scenery, and seats, what is the message? Let Hagan and Newbauer take you through EDUCATING RITA, and see if you do not walk away feeling like you can do anything.
by Willy Russell
Directed by Rich Rubin
April 7 – 23, 2011
Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5
825 Walnut Street