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 May 18 - 24, 2017 
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Theater Review

Getting Schooled in '80s Liverpool

We all receive a lesson in Educating Rita

By Maggie Grimason

Taking a seat at the small theater of the VSA North Fourth Art Center, the stage was well set for the the first scenes of Educating Rita, a seminal play of the 1980s by Willy Russell. The set remains the same throughout the (fairly lengthy, one should note) play; its the office of one of the two characters, Frank—a poet-turned-professor-turned-alcoholic. The office is plush—leather armchairs, tall book cases, desk lamps, a Persian rug—presenting the rich, glowing academic world as the only other character, Rita, must see it. Rita is a hairdresser with an insatiable intellectual appetite, who has been enrolled in an Open University course, with Frank as her tutor. Operating under the guise of that relationship, an emotional journey unfolds over the course of a single semester at a university in Liverpool.

As soon as the charming Jessica Osbourne, in the role of Rita, steps onto the stage, the play has the audience. Delightfully witty exchanges ensue between Frank and Rita—replete with a lot of literary allusion and markedly clever jokes and observations. For all its humor and pithiness, what is at the heart of Educating Rita is something more like a tragedy. As Rita is spurred onward by intellectual revelation, slowly coming into herself—it becomes apparent that, despite assuming the role of teacher, it is Frank who is incapable of learning. While Rita's life reaches new heights, Frank's further crumbles. Though the interior life of the characters is moving, at times, the dynamic between them is problematic.

While it is evident that Rita breathes new life into the world for Frank, the play fumbles in its expression of that particular element. Educating Rita premiered in 1980—so perhaps it can be forgiven to a degree for being outdated—but the much older Frank's not infrequent romantic suggestions toward the 26-year-old Rita had me rolling my eyes so hard in the dark of the playhouse. As Frank quips something about “oh, if only I was 20 years younger,” I was barely able to restrain an exasperated sigh. That the chemistry between the two characters can't be elucidated in another way is a failure of the playwright, but speaks something to the dated material, too.

West End Productions—Albuquerque's newest theater company—handled the material deftly, however. Both our leads—Osbourne, as well as Frederick Ponzlov as Frank—have talent in droves and bring the necessary heart and expression to these characters. The way they play the two, and the smart interaction between them, give the play an emotional core that rings true, despite some misgivings. By the end of the lengthy, but always engaging, play, we see both characters quite nearly in tears.

The characters in this play both deal with problems, but what it surprisingly suggests, is that some, like Frank's self-doubt and addiction, are less easily dealt with, than say, Rita's lower class background. While the sociological implications of all that can be well argued, what can safely be walked away with is hours of genuinely entertaining theater. And that Educating Rita is so very apt at eliciting emotion and discussion is a testament to this skilled production.

Catch Educating Rita in its last weekend at the VSA North Fourth Art Center (4904 Fourth Street NW), where it runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday (check West End Production's website for details at westendproductions.org).

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