by Patrice Nolan
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 Theatre 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.