Monday, March 21, 2011

Un-sentimental education

Jane Pfitsch and Andrew Long attempt to educate each other.
Education is Boston's big business.  Or at least one of the biggest businesses we've got left - and our newer industries, like high- and bio-tech, are tightly linked to our powerhouse universities.

Yet education is something we almost never treat on our stages.  Then again - perhaps that's inevitable in these parts.  Somebody famous once said theatre holds the mirror up to nature; but Boston theatre most often holds the mirror up to someone else's nature.  Our stages prefer to produce plays about racism in Alabama or South Africa, for example, rather than in Southie or Charlestown.  And when we do hold the mirror up to ourselves, we only gaze through rose-colored glasses: at the ART, for instance, production after production celebrates youthful rebellion, because that's what Harvard's customers - the professors and the students - want to hear about themselves.

So it's slightly shocking that the Huntington would dare to stage Educating Rita - a kind of Pygmalion update about a crusty professor and his sweet, swinging student - which turns out to be not very sweet at all; indeed, Educating Rita slowly reveals a shockingly bitter dissection of the academy.  Or at least the not-so-distant academy - humanities professors have moved on a bit from the style of pedagogy portrayed in Rita ("critical thinking" and "new perspectives" are now the rage).  But the essential contradiction at the heart of liberal education remains the same: its goal is meant to be intellectual freedom; yet inevitably it results in the codification of a class.  In short, one kind of class breeds another (maybe that's why we use the same word for both).  "Liberal" education leads not to true liberty but to new totems and taboos.  Perhaps that's why, when the professor in Rita surveys his confident new creation, he muses not on Pygmalion but on Frankenstein.  And perhaps that's what makes Educating Rita in some ways the most radical play I've seen on a major stage this season.

How odd, then, that on its surface it's so conventional - indeed, playwright Willy Russell has disguised his critique in a "well-made" two-hander that's really a kind of bourgeois Trojan horse.  Rita is designed to "pass" as a bright pop valentine to - well, half the movies and plays of its time and place (Britain in the late 60s and early 70s).  The playwright's inspiration was the "Open University" initiative of that era - an attempt to crack open the class carapace of British universities by admitting almost anyone to a basic studies program.  In Russell's script, that "anyone" is the eponymous Rita, a saucy hairdresser in Liverpool who shows up for tutoring - in a fabulously "mod" wardrobe - at the door of the rumpled, unshaven, nearly-alcoholic "Frank" (note the name), a battle-scarred poet-professor who has only taken on tutoring for extra cash.

From the opening moments, we sense the seeming derivativeness of the material - perky Rita (at left) desperately wants a better life, and unsurprisingly, Frank desperately needs a spiritual recharge.  Thus we fully expect (as we pat back a yawn) to watch Rita blossom into her own confident woman as Frank finds a renewed faith in himself.  Or something like that.  But even as the familiar tropes of a zillion well-made plays float by, we begin to sense that something very different is afoot in the subtext of Educating Rita.  In fact, from the outset there's a sweet confusion in Rita about her aims - and even her identity.  Her real name isn't actually Rita, for instance (it's Susan) - she has re-christened herself because she yearns to find a true identity, by "learning everything;" yet these idealistic yearnings slide all too easily into naked social ambition.   And needless to say, as the play progresses, that ambition quietly, but inexorably, takes over her life.

Russell makes it immediately clear that Rita's got intellectual chops - she offers a wicked critique of the Titian on Frank's wall, for instance, that precisely sums up the problem of the erotic in art.  And later, when she sees her first production of Macbeth, she's completely bowled over.  But Frank tells Rita that instinct isn't enough; indeed, subjectivity itself is something to be avoided and suppressed in the critique of art. "There are rules," he explains, "and you must observe them."

But as Rita masters the rules of the university game (deftly communicated by costume designer Nancy Brennan through a series of ever-more-sophisticated ensembles) we can feel the spontaneity that Rita brought to Frank's stuffy office slowly leak out of her.  As for Frank, as he watches his tutelage dismantle Rita's originality - a dismantling she's only too happy to accelerate - he hardly finds a renewed faith in himself; instead he sinks all the faster.  The climax to their relationship comes when he offers Rita his latest sheaf of poems - which he knows are a desperate conglomeration of allusions and references - and she responds as if they were truly inspired.  He gazes at her then with a look that tells you he not only knows he has created a monster, but also knows he has killed Rita's skeptical spark - and that he is finished in his profession, and may be staring at his own replacement.  No surprise then that he soon decamps (for Australia!), and that as a farewell gift, Rita offers him a long-needed haircut - after all, she was once a hairdresser; but even this innocent gesture inevitably recalls a similar favor that Delilah once did for Samson.

The trouble with Educating Rita, however, is that while Russell certainly communicates his dramatic intentions, he never quite makes good on them.  Or rather he refuses to let his themes really break through the play's pop surface, and this ends up limiting their impact.  Things never quite fall apart as they should, and Russell moves on from each well-crafted point as quickly as he has made it.  In a way, he's slightly undone by his own subterfuge.

But thoughtful viewers will perceive his argument anyway, I think, partly because director Maria Aitkin limns it with a subtle hand (even as she keeps the comedy bubbling along), and partly because we simply couldn't ask for better actors to put it over.  It would be easy for Rita's happy bounce to read as cliché, for instance, but Jane Pfitsch (above left) keeps it remarkably fresh - although her accent is a shade too thick (and perhaps her final scene isn't quite conflicted enough).  Meanwhile, as Frank, Andrew Long (at right) proves a revelation.  I felt the first stirrings of his internal disgust weren't quite accurately calibrated, but Long proves just about peerless in his second-half collapse; he's clearly one of the best classically-trained actors to play Boston in quite some time, and his performance only made me long for the Huntington to bring him back in Shakespeare or Shaw.

As usual, the set - by Allen Moyer - is a handsomely appointed giant, but I confess I always dig these beautifully-detailed behemoths; I guess I'm just a size queen.  My one quibble with the production was its lighting; designer Joel E. Silver, together with projections designer Seághan McKay, poetically conjures a dozen passing times of day (and season) through the set's office windows; but then all is often sacrificed to the glare of the fluorescent lights of the office itself. While I understood the rationale for this, I slowly began to resent it; less, please.  But as for everything else: just right.


  1. I, too, was really taken with Mr. Long's performance. Though I have never seen this play on stage before, I would imagine there would be a tendency to try for the fussy or effete.

    His resigned descent into an alcoholic train wreck was memorable.

    Russell's play had a lot more meat to it than I remembered from seeing the Michael Caine movie version years ago.

    The sets are beautiful, but don't you think that the size of the stage can occasionally hurt the timing and rythym of a work like this- that is something set in a more cozy environment? For instance, in Rita, I felt there were some rather long crosses, and they were having to connect across the chasm at times. Butley had a similar size issue, but at least there were two desk areas to situate action around. Bus Stop also had the advantage of clusters of chairs and tables that made sense for blocking in a large expanse - though not always. Sometimes I notice that directors on that big mainstage solve the problem by just zero-spacing large portions of the stage.

    In Vengeance is the Lord's everything was pushed forward and the separation of living room and dining room helped quite a bit.

    Then again, the sweeping, magnificent set for Present Laughter didn't seem to hurt the timing much.

    Maybe Rita would say I'm talkin' out my arse.

  2. Hey Art, thanks for your comment. But as I said, I'm a size queen - I like the extra inches at the Huntington. Or at least they don't BOTHER me. Sure, a few crosses were a bit long - so what? And I'm struck by a strange prejudice that seems to have developed among theatre folks lately. When a play is staged in a long, low basement, with a leaky ceiling and a column in the middle of the action - "Wow, how innovative!" everyone enthuses. But when it's beautifully presented on a handsome set on a nice big proscenium - "Oh, not so sure about that; isn't it a little TOO impressive?" Well, I guess I like being impressed.

  3. Enjoying this discussion.

    You should see how much empty space there is backstage! Did you notice that the we brought the proscenium down by about half too? Butley was a little smaller yes - but it was important to Maria Aitken and team to use the world outside the office to help with the passage of time - so the windows were big - and thus the walls.

    I'm always bugged when folks call our space a barn... there's less than 900 seats folks and the size of stage is very typical of a traditional broadway house. That is our scale.

    Sometimes we're too small. We're going to be cutting down a set next season by about 8 feet to squeeze it in here... we lack the depth and wing space here that is more typical of newer construction.


    Art - part of what you notice about "zero spacing" some parts of the stage have to do with our sight lines too. The far side seats loose a LOT of the useable space, so the most important staging tends to happen within about 1/3 of the stage space - downstage center.


    Todd Williams (Huntington Theatre Co - Prod Mgr)

  4. I don't get out to the Huntington much, but sometimes the vastness of the set designs (which never fail to impress) dwarf the drama. It's great when the play is meant to be epic in scope and the entire set is used, but when I saw August Wilson's Radio Golf some years ago, the exquisite set was a cut-away showing two stories of a dilapidated office building, but all the action occurred only on the first floor-- and I just came away disappointed that the second floor was never used!

  5. Wonderful post. I must say I really loved it.
    And yes... theater holds the mirror up to nature.