Arts » Performing Arts

Rita gets relit

Plus, a Much Ado review

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When we seek out a teacher to help us make a radical change in ourselves, a powerful paradox is set in motion when the teacher takes an instant liking to the student. For in succeeding to help the student reach his or her goal, the teacher risks transforming what is appealing into something that isn't. In Willy Russell's Educating Rita -- as in Shaw's Pygmalion -- the tensions and paradoxes are compounded because the student-teacher relationship is at close quarters, one-on-one rather than in a classroom. Extra spice and intensity are added because the two are man and woman.

Teacher-student chemistry isn't quite elementary as these fascinating couples transform before our eyes. Mutual attraction and revulsion are always in the mix.

Shaw's confection was musicalized into Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady, first on Broadway, then on the silver screen. But Rita kept its brand name when Russell adapted his 1980 stage comedy for the noteworthy 1983 film face-off between Julie Walters, recreating her live Rita for celluloid, and Michael Caine. So why did Russell bring his beloved Rita back into surgery for a new stage version in 2002?

"When Willy Russell first wrote the show, it had a different purpose, I think," says Christy Basa, who takes on the title role in the new Queen City Theatre Company production, opening this Thursday at Duke Power Theatre and running through Aug. 23.

"It was at a time -- my gosh, late '70s-early '80s in England -- the position of women then was quite different than it is now. Although our Rita is still concerned with being independent and being herself and maybe not taking on those traditional roles, that's certainly more acceptable now in our 2008 society than it would have been then."

So while he was stripping away some dated political references, Russell was also subtly shifting his message away from "I Am Woman" feminism. Rita remains feisty, even if she isn't quite so odd.

"She's not as unique now," Basa admits, "but we still live in an era of great political correctness, and I think there are times when she comes up with something -- she has no real boundaries in the beginning. She hasn't learned them yet. I think a lot of people would like to be like that."

Her impact on the snoozy, boozy world of English teacher Dr. Frank Bryant certainly remains electric. Joe Rux, who portrays the alcoholic Open University professor, describes the collision in incendiary terms.

"Frank is doing this Open University work because he needs the money for his booze," Rux says. "But he's also kind of snubbing his nose at the fact that this is really -- he thinks -- beneath him. Rita comes in, he's a little put off by her at first. And then -- especially the way Christy is doing it, it's so hard for me to keep a straight face -- there is like this breath of fresh air. It's so out of his realm of understanding and out of the realm of his own circle of friends. And he even says it: He has this line, 'You know, I think you're quite marvelous.' And that's where the spark starts for Frank, right in that first scene."

Lighting those fires -- and keeping them lit -- puts extra pressure on the stars, and they both feel it. Unlike the movie, where Russell opened up the protagonists' stories and allowed us outside Frank's office, the stage play is strictly a two-hander, with all the plot walled-up in academe.

Working with Queen City artistic director Glenn Griffin, Basa understands the onus of coming on strong as a vivacious, likable life force. She has done one other two-person play before, paired with Griffin in Love Letters during their Off-Tryon Theatre Company days. But that one hardly counts in Basa's view, little more than a staged reading with no real dialogue.

"As Glenn said, 'Here's the problem: it's a two-person play. Aunt Evy or whoever isn't going to waltz in and liven things up. So we have to like you from the minute it starts.'"

On the other hand, the pressure -- and Griffin's undivided attention -- can yield dividends.

"You really do have so much more one-on-one time with the director," Rux relates. "You really can jump in and chew into the whole thing a lot better. It's the first time that I've worked with Glenn as a director. He knows the play, he knows the text, he knows the history, the culture, so I was really impressed."

Rux was a key cog in the Actor's Theatre production of Take Me Out, our Show of the Year in 2004 -- so it's impressive that he's impressed. Better still, he'll be lingering in Charlotte through the 2008-09 season as an artistic associate at Epic Arts Rep Theatre.

Say "I Do" To Ado

Exiled from the great outdoors – and the not-so-great motorcycle engines, construction cranes, and ambulance sirens that spoil the bucolic allure of The Green – Collaborative Arts have at last hit their stride in Shakespearean production with their current Much Ado About Nothing. Co-founders Elise Wilkinson and Joe Copley have assembled a startlingly fine cast to joust with the Bard's pentameters, including Peter Smeal as Dogberry, Allen England as Antonio, and Craig Spradley as Leonato to execute the comedic bravura.

Newcomer director Alexander Harrington works wonders, helping to lift the Elizabethan chops of Leah Palmer-Licht and Chaz Pofahl as lovebirds Hero and Claudio. Greg Paroff as the villainous Don John secures a contract to carry out a hit on behalf of the Sicilian setting, doubling as Dogberry's doddering stooge, while Patrick Tansor's lordly tonsils as Prince Don Pedro earmark him as another newcomer who must be tempted to linger in town.

Wilkinson and Copley have also done fine work balancing concern for the wrongly spurned Hero with the lightsome parry-and-thrust badinage between Beatrice and Benedrick. It's a fine production whose balance is gleefully tilted toward the funnybone without shortchanging the serious moments of treachery and rebirth. Most joyous of all, tickets at McGlohon Theatre are free through Sunday, and suggested donations are richly deserved.

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