Entries in Milwaukee Theater (2)


Commentary: Educate Yourself at Renaissance Theaterworks

What can be so powerful about an education, formal or otherwise? Willy Russell’s 1980 British play Educating Rita provides several answers that resonate in a completely contemporary context.  Renaissance Theaterworks opened the production this weekend under Jenny Wanasek’s masterful direction of Midwest actors Jonathan Smoots (from American Players Theatre) and Cristina Panfilio (who also debuted at American Players Theatre this year), in a compelling evening of theater.

The acting pair recreate a middle aged, Open University Professor named Frank and a married hairdresser who calls herself Rita using disarming affection and humor. While the action occurs in a richly decorated English college library (courtesy of Scenic Designer Steve Barnes) where Rita’s incredibly colorful and hip costumes (designed by Alex Tacoma) shine, this winning combination unfolds a deliciously funny play that rarely appears dated.  There’s so much more to Russell’s themes than the addicted to alcohol Frank attempting to help the working class Rita pass her university exams.

A deep longing in Rita’s young heart (she’s 26) questions her purpose in life instead of merely her social status. She senses there are more choices involved in day-to-day living than how many kinds of ale or brew to enjoy at the local pub. Rita’s exactly right and her friends disapprove of her searching for that “more,” a greater understanding to the human existence and so Rita needs courage to continue. Franks wants to help Rita attain her university degree, jumping through the appropriate protocol, without transforming her unique curiosity into merely “cultured” jargon. 

Perhaps what Rita comes to believe is that education provides opportunities for immense personal choice. When Rita’s husband throws her out of the marriage for avoiding having a baby, Rita knows her education may provide her with more choices than the ones merely expected of her. However, having a university degree and becoming more “educated” only gives an individual a process to make informed choices. An education in itself will never be the measure of personal happiness or success, or provide every answer to life's difficutl questions. Yet, the searching and process allows anyone on this journey the opportunity to choose and find their way. 

Rita and Frank are on their own search where Panifilio and Smoots portray Russell’s frail and very human characters with poignant, sympathetic clarity allowing each their own dignity. When the audience reaches the last minutes of the play, Renaissance provides the perfect evening to realize the power of educating oneself to choice. Whether one’s situation is desperate or fulfilling, educating oneself to new possibilities is an unfailing challenge Frank and Rita illustrate.

Renaissance Theaterworks illustrates these same possibilities in many of the plays they have produced, including this enchanting production. Twenty years ago these determined women chose to begin a very rare theater company, one run entirely by women. Women who also chose to have babies, chose to be of service. chose to make a difference in the Milwaukee Theater community. Some are married, some are single, some were divorced and remarried, some have children, others have none, still other members chose another path during this 20 year’s time to pursue other challenges.  

As the company once again faces change with Marie Kohler moving from Co-Artistic Director to Playwright in Residence and Dramaturg, these wonderfully cultured women through their personal and theater voices show individuals the power of educated choice. Choice combined with confronting the changes necessary to endure throughout ordinary life. Lives that chose to make a significant difference from the heart and soul and embody the very essence of the formal and informal education this delightful young woman character exemplifies in the company’s soul-searching Educating Rita.   

Renaissance Theaterworks presents Educating Rita in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through February 10. For further information on the May 9 fundraiser or tickets, please call 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan





While Renaissance Theaterworks celebrates their 20th anniversary this entire season, two productions with ties to their company ran simultaneously this fall. While Irena’s Vow played in the Nancy Kendall Theater at Cardinal Stritch University for a special artistic collaboration, a selection from the company’s own season Enfrascada continues at the Broadway Theatre Center through November 11. Each production relates the valuable theme of what might define being a “wise woman.” 

The first production Irena’s Vow became an artistic collaboration between Cardinal Stritch University’s Theater Department and the Renaissance Theaterworks staff. Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director Susan Fete directed the Stritch production adapted from a true story with the company’s Producing Director Julie Swenson bringing Irena to life. The play presents a harrowing vision of an 18-year old Catholic Polish girl who becomes intertwined with the Nazis during World War II. Based on a true story, Irena displays wise judgment in saving 12 young Jewish people while putting her own life in dangerous circumstances.

Irena suffered at the Nazi’s hands numerous times during the war despite her young age. After she became the housekeeper of a prominent German officer, she fed and hid the Jews. When Irena knew these workers might be discovered, she moved them to a safer place.  When the German officer discovered his trusted servant Irena was hiding Jewish workers in his house, she became his mistress to save them. Swenson captures Irena with an believable innocence that underscores her precocious maturity and thoughtful wisdom.

Irena’s wisdom might be best illustrated when one of the Jewish couples discover they are expecting a child.  While the 11 captives voted to ask Irena to find the medical equipment to terminate the pregnancy, Irena’s better judgment tells her to ask what this Jewish woman really desired. She wanted to keep her baby, which the remaining 11 were afraid would endanger their own lives. Irena chooses to save a life, save this baby as a sign of future hope. 

Early on the story, Irena experiences a German soldier murdering a Jewish baby and mother right on the street before her terrorized eyes, a scene she constantly remembered. Irena vows to only save lives instead of destroying them. Her self-sacrifice enabled everyone’s escape when she wisely plans for their safety after her German employer was moved to another location, with the tiny newborn infant and the family saved first. A wise woman placed under duress in each complicated, new situation.

In RTW’s second production Enfrascada, the play features four Latina women to highlight the company’s Diversity Series featuring Yadira Correa, Karen Estrada, Annie Henk, Yunuen Pardo and Rána Roman. Each of their characters represent a contemporary woman from playwright Tanya Saracho’s life (a Co-founder of Chicago’s Teatro Luna in 2000) similar to the three Señoras prominent in the play who solve the problems these four women face. A Señora or “wise woman” as she is still called, has enlightened the Latina culture for decades. At one wekend performance, one of these marvelous “healers” that the cast was familiar with traveled from Chicago and was available to RTW audience members for consultation this past weekend. 

This Señora also spoke by translation at an event held after the Sunday performance, a most interesting discussion that interspersed the cast members discussing there distinct place in Latin American culture, which included someone of Latin American heritage yet having little ability to speak Spanish because the woman was raised as a first generation American. This situation appeared in Saracho's play when one of the characters needs a translator to speak to the Señora for assistance, to explain her crisis. 

However, the lovely woman speaking to the audience about her life as a Señora stated she had known of her healing gifts since she was a child, almost from when she was in the womb. A transformative experience when she was six years old frightened her at this tender age, although over time she began to see and use her gifts “wisely.” Several actresses from the production use a Señora regularly, this wise woman becoming an intimate part of people’s lives, and the Señora knew Saracho, they were friends and learned from each other, as women do.  

Wise women support other women. Similar to Irena saving the Jewish workers and a baby’s life, together with these characters from Saracho’s play that stand by their friend in distress, encourage her to use their Señoras who assist as both a counselors and healers, attempting to smooth a life crisis for their friend. The play reinforces the fact Renaissance Theaterworks has consistently supported new and established women actors, directors, playwrights and theater technicians to make a significant impact in Milwaukee and Midwest Theater.

This includes the company’s present Administrative Assistant, Mallory Mextoxen, a former Stritch University graduate, who was asked to be an assistant director several times in the past, including working with Fete for Irena’s Vow. Because of this encouragement and experience, the city might see her name as a “Director” next season for one of the many theater companies Milwaukee enjoys, in the footsteps of Laura Gordon or Mary McDonald Kerr.   

Wise decisions such as these ensure the community will enjoy the privilege of another professional and talented woman’s gifts, and many more in the future. This month Renaissance Theaterworks sends out letters for its 2012 Costume Campaign, an annual fundraiser to keep their actors dressed and ready for the stage in 2013. Be a supportive theater enthusiast and assist these unbelievably gifted professionals who have the courage and perseverance for 20 years to produce exceptional theatre through the voices of wise women in Milwaukee.

Renaissance Theaterworks presents Enfrascada at the Broadway Theatre Center in the Studio Theatre through November 11. Donations to the 2012 Costume Campaign can be made by contacting the Theater Company. For further information, please call 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan