It is the oft-quoted, nearly clichéd, theme of a student surpassing his master that characterizes Willy Russell's delightful play, Educating Rita, produced this weekend by Theatre Tulsa.
Whitson Hanna directs Will Carpenter as Frank: a drunken, wary professor who takes on a job teaching working class students to earn some extra change for his booze, and Leslie Long as Rita, a spunky young hairdresser eager to learn.
Set in 1980s England, the play borrows from the classic myth Pygmalion, in which an academic takes on a working class girl. Determined to teach her how to think and behave "properly," he eventually learns as much from her as she does from him.
The set is comprised of antique upholstered chairs, two sets of shelves crammed with books and globes, and a desk upon which even more titles rest.
Carpenter enters, dressed in khaki pants and a tweed jacket that appear slightly too large, spectacles and a bald spot. He stumbles around the room, berating his lover via cell phone, finally locating a bottle of liquor hidden in one of the bookshelves.
There is a loud banging on the door, and in bursts Long, dressed in a cutoff denim miniskirt, leggings, yellow pumps and a high ponytail. She notices a piece of artwork hanging on the professor's wall and comments on its eroticism. Right away, both he and the audience are captivated by her.
Rita (who works in a hair salon and whose real name is Susan White) makes Frank a bit uncomfortable with her tendency to get just a little too close; and Frank wavers between patience and annoyance for the girl's eagerness.
It becomes clear very quickly that Rita is after more than an education -- she wants a new life. She is bored with her friends and husband, who are content to discuss the mundane details of their lives and spend most of their nights at the pub. Rita wants more, and she thinks she can get it from Frank. At the same time, the professor has lost all confidence in his ability as a teacher and tries to send her away, telling her he has nothing to offer. She hangs on, and a beautiful tale of friendship and learning unfolds.
Together, Carpenter and Long are electrifying. They have a wonderful chemistry. Each is engrossing and amusing on his/her own, but, together, they're even better. Their honest reactions to each other make the mounting relationship between them both believable and adorable. I'm not sure I've ever seen another pair of actors so comfortable with one another, so natural in their exchanges.
The script is brilliant; but it is the actors' delivery of their lines that keeps the audience rapt.
Long's Rita is eager to learn, reluctant to do the work and easily makes the audience laugh with her natural charm and charisma. Hers is a role that could easily be overplayed to the point of ridiculousness, but Long's consideration for her character ensures that does not happen. Rather than come across as a joke (one of Rita's fears), she is a very real, very smart character who undergoes a self-realizing transformation.
Between punch lines, she has moments of revealing vulnerability. There is a visual progression in her character as she grows and learns, and Frank as well begins facing his own demons, a task brought on by his affection for Rita and his desire to please her.
Carpenter also plays his character well, unencumbered by the professor's age, giving some likeability to a man who, without the humanity Carpenter provides, could easily be one-dimensional and cruel.
Hanna's direction is purposeful and well-executed. The two actors use their space well, with deliberation; they're not simply crossing each other on the stage to have something to do.
I was more than impressed by all of the elements of this production. I have not seen Long in anything since Theatre Tulsa's Nickel and Dimed more than two years ago, and Will Carpenter made his debut performance in Tulsa with this show. Both actors are remarkably talented, and I sincerely hope to see more from each of them in the future.
Educating Rita continues this weekend, ThurS., Feb. 26 through Sat., Feb. 28 at 8pm in the Liddy Doenges Theater of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. Tickets are $17.50 and available at tulsapac.com.
Put into Perspective
On Thurs., Feb. 26, Lovetts Gallery, 6528 E. 51st St., presents its Spring Perspective, showcasing the work of mixed media sculptor Chapel, mixed media painter and photographer Maurice Evans, contemporary realist painter Todd Ford, mixed media painter and photographer Mateo Romero and wood sculptor James Smith.
Four of the five artists will be on hand during the exhibit's opening and reception on Thursday, 5-8pm. For more on the exhibition and the gallery, go to lovettsgallery.com.
Teaching a Lesson
The Page Players of the Sand Springs Community Theater present The Diary of Anne Frank, opening Thursday and running through March 1.
From the theater: "Familiar to most audiences, this classic drama documents the experiences of Anne Frank and the seven others in hiding (with her) during the early years of Hitler's reign.
"The audience is brought into their world, experiencing their hopes and fears, trials and tribulations as Anne records these vulnerable years in her diary."
The play is presented at the Clyde Boyd Auditorium, 305 W. 35th St. in Sand Springs, in conjunction with the teaching of the Holocaust at Clyde Boyd Middle School. For tickets and other information, visit page players.com or call 246-2196.
Labor of Love
On Tue., March 3, Celebrity Attractions presents The Pajama Game, winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival in 2006. The Pajama Game is a funny, fast-paced musical involving workers at a pajama factory who demand a seven-and-a-half-cents-per-hour raise in wages to keep them working.
Sid is the new superintendent who wants to prove himself to the factory's owner and pushes the workers so hard that they complain to the labor union, which sends the "lovely but tough" Babe to handle their complaints. Romance ensues between Babe and Sid, which complicates their positions at the factory until they can conjure a solution that will solve all their problems.
The show plays March 3-8 in the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa PAC. Tickets are available at tulsapac.com.
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