“WATERFORD, Mich. – In what feels to many like the winter of our discontent, small rays of sunshine are evident throughout the theater community via productions that lend perspective, optimistic or otherwise, on the current human condition. Monster Box Theatre and Mind the Gap Productions are to be commended for realizing, somewhat ironically, that context for understanding the present state of affairs in the USA (and beyond) lies in the Theatre of the Absurd canon and Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson.
To be sure, generations of Parisians have embraced the lessons in this play, which has run for 60 years – without interruption and to full houses – at the Théâtre de la Huchette. Although Ionesco was dramatizing a post-WWII sense of futility, rejecting the societal conventions of theatre, art and communication itself, his surrealist sensibilities remain archly relevant today.
Audiences unfamiliar with absurdist drama may not know what to expect at Waterford’s Monster Box Theatre, but that is no reason to shy away from this precisely and beautifully crafted production. The Lesson, a one-act dark comedy running a tight 70 minutes, is at times silly, disorienting, confusing and terrifying. As with any irrational dream, this play invites post-curtain discussion and scrutiny, but there are no prerequisites for enjoying it at face value.
There are only three characters: The Maid, played with brusque efficiency by Margaret Gilkes; the eager and confident Pupil, performed with comedic flair by Fran Potasnik; and the intense Professor, brilliantly captured by Adrian Diffey. He is an aging academic trapped by his own reductionist philosophies and unable to cope with dissent, logical or otherwise; he is an absurdist’s Prospero, beguiled and undone by his own magical incantations.
As the play opens, the Maid, who is clearly disenchanted with her work, scrubs away at an ornate chair and the floor around it. There is a loud knocking at the door, and she admits the Pupil, explaining that the Professor will be right in. When the Professor enters, he is kind – almost timid – and quite solicitous. He praises the Pupil, who will be defending a doctoral thesis, on being able to name three of the four seasons and for knowing that the capital of France is Paris. The Pupil declares her ability to count to infinity, but when challenged admits that she can certainly count to 16. The Maid interrupts to scold the Professor for taking up arithmetic with the Pupil, certain that no good can come of it. After discovering that the Pupil is competent at addition but has no concept of subtraction or the actual concepts behind mathematics, Professor and Pupil proceed with the study of philology. As the Professor’s instruction becomes increasingly bizarre and inscrutable, the Pupil develops a painful toothache. The Maid intercedes again, warning the Professor in a menacing tone that “this is the way it always begins.”
The Lesson continues in this nonsensical, unsettling way, part Monty Python sketch and part Orwellian nightmare. Diffey does a terrific job of selling Ionesco’s trademark non-sequiturs as legitimate instruction. Working in tight formation, the three-person cast, which shares directorial credit for this production, deftly sends the audience scrabbling for meaning amidst the laughter and macabre conclusion. Of course, this lies at the heart of Ionesco’s purpose – a rejection of conventional theatrical forms, which he found incongruous in an irrational and pointless world. So it goes.
This Mind the Gap production of The Lesson resists the urge, especially tempting in these politically volatile times, to push an obvious agenda. They let Ionesco’s play speak for itself. In fact, the play needs little amplification, clearly commenting on the dangers of demagoguery, blind authority and its eagerness to distort truth, enforce compliance, and eradicate dissension. Even though The Lesson is firmly grounded in the 1950s, the audience needs little imagination to connect its oblique message to the language of our day, in which such terms as “alternative facts” are served up by authority figures without so much as a blush.
A Deadly “Lesson” at Mind the Gap
Posted on March 16, 2017 by It’s All Theatre
By Daniel Skora
“The Theatre de la Huchette is a modest little venue in Paris’ Left Bank where most every evening for the last sixty years a small group of patrons have crowded in to its 85 seats to partake of what has become the longest running show in theatrical history. Since 1957, the theatre has been performing in tandem two of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classics, “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson”. Now, to give Americans a taste of what has inspired this unheard of enthusiasm by the French, Mind the Gap Productions, in conjunction with Monster Box Theatre, is presenting a superb and deliciously creepy production of “The Lesson”.
Ionesco was part of an avant-garde school of French playwrights whose plays became known as the Theatre of the Absurd. An intense personal experience at a very young age coupled with an awareness of the brutalities of World War II instilled in him a sense of the futility and absurdity of life. His plays came to reflect that worldview.
There are, of course, political and philosophical meanings that can be extracted from “La Lecon”, the original French title of Ionesco’s play. But with Mind the Gap’s engaging production, allegorical interpretations can be put aside and left to the academics. “The Lesson” as presented here is not only entertaining but highly enjoyable as well, a dark comedy and a twisted tale of irrationality tightly packed into a tense 3-character 70 minute one-act.
The play opens to a middle-aged maid (Margaret Gilkes) doing cleanup duty in a corner of a somber-looking room. The walls of the room are papered in a sickly green and the several bookcases are filled with cheerless objects: a crucifix, a human skull, a small stone gargoyle, and several antiquarian clocks. The woman in Van Gogh’s painting “La Berceuse” looks down with disdain from one of the walls, perhaps, it will seem in retrospect, because of all she’s laid witness to over the years. As if to justify her compliance to the task at hand, the maid carries about her the contrary airs of dedication and disgust.
A knock on the door initiates admittance to a female whose eyes are bright with the promise of impending intellectual discussion. The part of the Pupil is written for and almost always performed by a young woman, but here she is cast against conventionality, with a mature lady (Fran Potasnick) playing her instead. For effect, she’s done up in pigtails and speaks in a childlike falsetto, further adding to the play’s surrealistic atmosphere.
Presently, the Professor enters (Adrian Diffey), an older man with a nervous disposition who’s nevertheless friendly and accommodating towards the young lady. After a few pleasantries, the lesson begins. Though the pupil is preparing for her doctoral thesis, the professor starts with the most basic of math problems. The questions hardly get any more difficult than 8+1, in fact become absurdly repetitive, and along the way the young woman’s naiveté begins to show through.
When the professor shifts his lecture to philological issues, the Pupil begins to complain about a toothache. The Professor gives her no sympathy and even becomes stern with her for not paying proper attention. Gradually, the ache in the Pupil’s mouth begins to spread through her whole body until finally the play reaches its gruesome denouement.
“The Lesson” offers the opportunity to see not only a Theatre of the Absurd classic, but to enjoy Mind the Gap’s splendid production. The show scores big on all fronts. The nicely detailed set adds layers of moodiness to the grisly script. Monster Box’s intimate staging area gives the audience the feeling of actually being a part of the show. And while the cast is talented and uniformly first-rate, the show hinges on the performance of the professor. It’s here where Adrian Diffey makes this “Lesson” one for the books. He begins his portrayal as a seemingly rational person and progressively builds in emotional intensity until the Professor in no longer in control of his faculties. His is a bravura performance that would, were it humanly possible, continue to attract devotees of inspirational and relevant theatre for decades to come.
Mind the Gap is truly theatre from the heart and founders Diffey and Potasnik have put a lot of love into this production. The considerable time they’ve spent in Europe has undoubtedly contributed to making this production one the author would surely have approved of. The show is produced by Paul Stark and the entire cast is listed as contributing to the role of the director. Set design and construction as well as sound recording and design are all by Adrian Diffey. “The Lesson” runs through March 26th. Tickets are available by going online to MonsterBoxTheatre.com or calling the box office at 248.787.1400. Monster Box Theatre is located at 2529 Elizabeth Lake Rd. in Waterford.”