Arvada Center Black Box Theatre Hosts British Favorite
Reviewed by Tom Jones
October 11, 2018
Rita wants in. Frank wants out. This is Liverpool, England in the 1980s. Class distinction is at its peak. The upper class holds all the cards. The working class struggles to stay afloat. Frank is an upper crust, cranky professor, disillusioned with the education system. He accepts a tutoring job just for the money. Rita is a minimally educated 26-year-old hairdresser in an unhappy marriage, eager to improve her social status. The two are just about as opposite as two persons can be.
Rita has an insatiable desire to learn. Learn everything. She is outgoing, cheerful, optimistic and chatty. Frank is a solemn curmudgeon, consigned to his office, no longer writing poetry, and unhappily awaiting the arrival of the student he has been assigned to tutor. Rita wants to get in to the world of the educated, and out of her common worker status. She hopes to improve herself under the direction of a tutor. Frank wants to get out of the educational world, but does not make any effort to do so – just spending his days feeling sorry for himself and drinking and drinking and drinking.
John Hutton and Emily Van Fleet play the two characters this season in “Educating Rita” on stage at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Frank’s dismal existence is disturbed when the delightful Rita arrives, to “be taught.” She is miles below the professor’s social status, and finds the failed poet to be the most interesting person she has ever met. Frank is initially appalled by the new student in his charge. Beguiled by her naivety, he becomes interested in actually turning her into a British woman of status. She has no self-esteem. This is similar to Henry Higgins trying to make a duchess out of the flower market girl (Eliza Doolittle) in “My Fair Lady.”
British playwright Willy Russell lives in Liverpool. His “Educating Rita” “Blood Brothers,” and “Shirley Valentine” were international hits. “Rita” became a 1983 movie starring Michael Caine and Julie Waters. His idea about educating Rita is loosely based on the Pygmalion myth, which was also the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” as well as the musical “My Fair Lady,” the “Pretty Woman” movie, and even the “Frankenstein” story. They all have in common the notion of a mentor-student/creation relationship.
The Arvada Center has an amazing record of providing terrific sets. This excellence continues with Brian Mallgrave’s creation of Frank’s office. The cluttered desk, the stacks here and there and everywhere. The hidden bottles of his Scotch. The plants that die from having no care. Jon Olson has again excelled with his lighting design.
Director Lynne Collins’ credentials are impeccable. The two leads are both very convincing. The story evolves into a switching of roles. Frank becomes concerned that perhaps he has taught the delightful Rita too much, resulting in her becoming a somewhat unpleasant upper class woman. Rita perceives that she needs to help Frank get back to his poetry writing, give up the booze, and turn his life into something happy and productive. There is much of value in the lessons playwright Russell develops. The suggestion that everyone makes some effort to reach his/her potential and the value of helping others are always desired goals.
The total experience is an interesting look at British class distinctions of 40 years ago, as well as a study of how we perceive ourselves and others. I did find the production too long, and did have difficulty understanding everything the delightful fast-talking Rita had to say. However, I came away with a great appreciation of the acting effort, the time that was spent learning the roles, and the total “look” of the show.
The play’s worldwide acclaim strikes chords with audiences, as everyone needs a “nudge to action” sometime in life. The Arvada audience gave the performers a standing ovation at show’s end.
Where: Main Stage Theatre, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.
6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, CO 80003-9985
When: Through November 11, 2018
For more information: Arvadacenter.org