Saturday 18 October 2014

Educating Rita tells a touching tale of yore

N.B. This is a "late" review of this play due to BLR's summertime cabin & travel interlude. At present there are only a few more performances left. Check the ACT website at for remaining showtimes.

Overview : 19th century American educator Brander Matthews who loved literature and theatre with a passion is credited with the expression : "A highbrow is a person educated beyond their intelligence." Which anticipates two alternative meanings : (1) that an educated person is a mere mimic of ideas they fail to understand, really, but like to throw hi-falutin' words about them anyway; or (2) a person may achieve book-learning and even knowledge, but along the way they lose their native intelligence / common sense that require no education. (Nowhere, of course, are both tendencies so evident as in the average parliament. Or, of course, in the hallowed halls of academia. Maybe best in your typical boardroom of bureaucrats, he admits after nearly four decades doing it...).

Playwright Willy Russell's 1980's script Educating Rita runs for another week at ACT's Granville Island Theatre. Directed by Sarah Rodgers, it is an oxidized timepiece of humour, pathos and irony. Along the way it proves both aspects of Brander Matthews' discerning insight. 

The plotline is almost intuitive : Rita (Holly Lewis) is a hairdresser, real name Susan, who doesn't like the jibber-jabber of her class. She's married to a blue collar workman who just wants to bed her down to pump out kids. Rita, meanwhile, wants to "expand her mind" as the old cliche has it. She's not o.c. about it, she just wants to rise above her station and learn, like 'Liza Dolittle, to speak articulately and cleverly. And she thinks an Old Ivy literature jones just might fetch her up proper, now, at age 26. 

Enter professor Frank (Ted Cole). He's the alcoholic cynic academic, in that order. He's going through his paces doing adult-ed at Open University to lubricate his exchequer & fund his habit. In the first act he's all faux irritation and glibness, while in the second he's a vaporous stodgy drunk ("Mr. Self-Pity Piss Artist" Susan now brands him). From the quasi-heroic  "You give me room to breathe!" in the earlier going he's now pegged as a chauvinist pathetic lech by play's end.

WYSIWYG : ER is a classic of its era, clever Pygmalion rip-off though it may be. Peasant girl wants to up herself. Doting (condescending) father figure steps into the breach. What starts as a top-down treat of self-discovery ends up in role reversal : the student is "liberated" while the mentor winds up enchained in his self-pity, self-loathing, self-destruction. James Mason playing Prof. Hummy Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's momentous flik Lolita leaps instantly to mind.

During Saturday's matinee viewing I asked myself why ACT in 2014 would mount anew such a timed, safe, middlebrow patriarchal drama. Precisely the stuff that critics of the Vancouver live theatre scene regularly love to disparage. I.e. little content that is new or challenging, nothing particularly "threatening" or even really surprising here. 

Fact is its draw, obviously, is precisely just that accessibility. The largely Great Generation crowd filled 3/4 of the seats and giggled and guffawed at all the right times. Also what's wrong with gaining even a moment's insight into human foibles and frailties ? It's that quality that would seem to explain this re-mount of the obviously dated plot & dialogue. To view ER in what many now claim is now a post-feminist epoch doesn't deny the universality of these big-ticket themes : Personal agency. Freedom. Core values examination. Hubris. Humility. Regret. Release. Redemption.

Some clever dialogue that is timeless : During the early discovery exchanges, Rita asks Frank about his personal life. He ditched his same-age wife to snatch up a college co-ed in her place, current wife Julia. Sensing disparagement of her, too, Rita wonders why. Frank demurs. "It's myself I'm not too fond of, not her. Over time you'll find there's less of me than meets the eye."

As for Rita's complaints about her family's day-to-day "earthiness" as compared to the headiness of academia, Frank says ironically : "Yes, we pluck birds from the sky and nail them down to learn how they fly."

Rita protests why she wants to embrace this culture of his : "All I see is everyone pissed or stoned and just going through their lives day-to-day. The meaning is all gone -- disease, vandalism, violence, homes burnt out -- they're all caught up in the 'got-to-have' game...All I want to find for the time being is me !"

"Art and literature begin to take the place of life. They're valuable, but you may have to suppress, even abandon your uniqueness," Frank warns Rita so she not delude herself she will find true "meaning" in them. But Rita is having none of that. She leaves hubby Dennis, bunks in with Trish, enrols in summer school full-time. She and Trish pull all-nighters reading Blake, Chekhov et al. She tells Frank : "She's got taste, Frank, just like you. Everything in her flat is dead-on pretentious!" 

By play's end, Susan dismisses Frank because, she accuses him, "You'd rather see me as a peasant !" He retorts, drunkenly, that this new song of self-confidence she sings is just "shrill, hollow and tuneless". As he heads off for a two-year college-ordered sabbatical in Oz -- England's traditional penal colony -- he asks Susan to join him there in exile. She refuses, of course, but helps him pack up and then gleefully snips ten years off his life to prep him for the next phase of his journey. Her parting observation to her mentor is this : "Of everything you've given me, I've learned most of all I have a choice."

And that is where and how the wise observation of Brander Matthews comes into play. Susan's intuition, at last, that "class" is not the district or the flat where you live. It's the stuff of your heart, your soul, your presence where and when and however you find yourself, book-learnin' or no.

Production values :  As Rita/Susan, Holly Lewis delivers a tour de force effort as a homegrown Liverpool native. Her L'pool accent -- via Dublin to this ear -- is consistent throughout. Two wee problems for folks in the nosebleed seats, however, are the Gatling-gun velocity of her words in that accent coupled with the fact, whether intended or not, her every sentence ends on a rising soprano note as if posing a question...? 

Ted Cole as Frank articulated and projected effortlessly, even when the drunk. He did not overdo the fawning Professor bit, his character's Humbert-lecherousness mostly subtle, which only added to how pathetic a loving lonely mess he truly is.

Set and costume designer Drew Facey wins Huzzah's galore for the superb facsimile of an Ivy professor's musty, fusty intellectual island with its 25-foot windowpanes, dozens of bookshelf stacks where he squirrels away both his whiskey bottles and the intellectual cunning that now but ferments with age. 

Sound designer Cayman Duncan's kicker from the Kinks "A Well Respected Man" was the perfect ironic opener for the show. As well, each of the dozen or so scene changes was punctuated with little-known indy acoustical clips from groups such as Daughter (singing "Youth"). Each hand-picked sound-bite accompanied Gerald King's crafty chiaroscuro lighting that allowed the actors' stage business to continue even during these transition moments.

Who gonna like :  As noted throughout, this is a period piece of well-wrought theatre. Folks in the mood for a trip down memory lane to embrace some never-stale human themes will enjoy the crisp acting & complementary mileux this production amply provides.


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