Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Educating Rita
Order Chaos Theater Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Holmes and Watson

Cynnita Agent and Peter Cunniff
Photo by Todd Sandberg
Willy Russell's Educating Rita is a charming drama that depicts the transformative power of education. With two wonderful leads, Order Chaos Theater Company's well-directed production skillfully balances humor, poignancy, and social commentary.

Set against the backdrop of working-class Liverpool in the early 1980s, the play follows Rita, a spirited hairdresser eager to escape the confines of her mundane existence, and Frank, a middle-aged and disillusioned university professor grappling with his own stagnation and unsatisfied life. The 29-year-old Rita is nervous and talkative but serious about learning; she wants to know everything. Frank is the older university professor who is a world-weary cynic assigned to tutor Rita. Frank finds himself changed from the spark to learn that he sees in Rita.

Russell does a fine job exploring various themes such as class, education, and personal identity which are still as relevant today as they were when the play first premiered in 1980. His characters are clearly defined and interesting and the end result is a thought-provoking reflection on two people from different classes who find a common bond. The central plot that focuses on the transformation of a female protagonist under the guidance of a male mentor is something you'll clearly recognize from George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, which was the basis for the musical My Fair Lady. Shaw's Eliza Dolittle and Russell's Rita both gain confidence and independence while embarking on a journey of self-discovery and intellectual growth with the support of their tutors and both plays explore the themes of class, personal identity, and the potential for knowledge and education to shape one's destiny. Russell, like Shaw, also has his female lead challenge societal expectations while navigating her way through the pursuit of personal fulfillment.

However, despite the play's many strengths, this is a two-act drama that runs over two hours with only two characters and one set, so there isn't a lot of varied movement or action, with certain scenes that tend to veer into repetition. While these instances do not detract significantly from the overall enjoyment of the play or this production, they do serve as minor distractions from an otherwise engaging drama.

Under Mark-Alan C. Clemente's insightful direction, Russell's witty and incisive dialogue is delivered with precision and flair by Cynnita Agent as Rita and Peter Cunniff as Frank, both of whom breathe depth and authenticity into their portrayals. Agent is a spitfire of energy, enthusiasm and excitement, but also nervousness and uncertainty, and she expertly takes us along on Rita's journey from eager but naive student to confident and self-assured individual. I've seen Agent in a variety of roles across town and she is always wonderful; her excellent portrayal here is no exception. Cunniff does a lovely job as the jaded academic who finds a renewed sense of purpose from his interactions with Rita in a nuanced and measured performance that reveals the character's vulnerability. Cunniff's facial reactions and expressive body language work well to show how Rita's infectious enthusiasm and unwavering determination have a profound impact on Frank.

With its richly drawn characters, insightful observations, and profound message of hope and transformation, Educating Rita is a charming drama of empowerment and self-discovery. While the play may be somewhat repetitive, Order Chaos Theater Company's production is a wonderful reminder of how knowledge can change lives.

Educating Rita runs through April 7, 2024 at Order Chaos Theater Company at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit

Directors: Mark-Alan C. Clemente
Production Assistant: Felicia Cunniff
Lighting and Sound Design: Maybe Stewart, Leila Taylor Technical Design: Mark-Alan C. Clemente, Jean-Paoul C. Clemente

Frank: Peter Cunniff
Rita: Cynnita Agent