‘The Lesson’ takes on academia in a college town
ANN ARBOR, Mich.–According to a recent WalletHub study, Ann Arbor is the most educated city in the United States, with more than 70-percent of the adult population having bachelor’s and more advanced degrees.
It’s quite bold, in that light, that the theatre company Mind the Gap has brought French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson to Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova space at The Yellow Barn. MTG produced the show earlier this year at Monster Box Theatre, but with a different cast.
It is especially bold to bring the play to this college town because, in this dark one-act play, academics get skewered.
The premise of this classic play is both simple and absurd.
A vivacious schoolgirl (Fran Potasnik) wearing yellow ribbons in her pigtails, a white blouse, short Navy blue skirt, ruffled anklets and Mary Jane shoes, skips into the French home of a demented professor (Adrian Diffey). The Pupil has arrived for tutoring in her pursuit of “total doctorates” in multiple disciplines, although her workbooks are how to draw letters and numbers.
She is obviously overconfident in her goal to sit for exams in three weeks when she needs the professor’s prompting to name all four seasons.
Initially, the professor – boastful that he has earned a “super total doctorate” — is over-affirming of the Pupil’s prospects.
Professor and Pupil talk, but they don’t communicate.
As this absurd lesson continues, the Professor grows angry at the Pupil’s ignorance. He bombards her with a torrent of lofty words that drain her innocent exuberance. As her confidence lilts, her health deteriorates. A toothache morphs into full-body fatigue.
At the play’s climax, after a comedic but exhausting volley of non-sequiturs, the Professor bludgeons his Pupil with a knife because she cannot provide taxonomy of the word.
Although the audience chuckles through the lesson, the climax elicits a gasp. They weren’t really having fun. Intellect didn’t trump the Professor’s base instincts. He’s a linguist, but he’s still lewd. He’s more murderer than mathematician.
One is left to believe that the real power rests with the third person in the play, the Professor’s uppity maid (Amy Choudhury), who knew from the time that she opened her employer’s door to the Pupil, that the lesson could turn tragic.
The audience was hushed as people left Theatre Nova. How else could an educated Ann Arbor audience respond to the play’s suggestion that teaching is an assault of the innocent?
The Lesson holds the distinction of being the longest continuously running performance in the world. For 60 years it is performed nightly in conjunction with another Eugene Ionesco play “The Bald Soprano,” at the 85-seat “Theatre de la Huchette” in Paris.
French high school students typically study this play in school.
It’s not an easy play to perform, however. Pacing has to be brisk to achieve the comedy-to-tragedy whiplash. Timing of the Professors long diatribes, and the student’s responses that just don’t follow, has to be just right for the show to evoke the questioning Ionesco undoubtedly desired.
For the most part, Mind the Gap’s production hits the mark.
The set furnishings transport the audience to 20th Century France. Recordings of French cabaret singer Edith Piaf open and close the 70-minute show. French speakers welcome audiences and deliver the routine turn-off-your-cell-phones reminders.
Potasnik and Diffey directed the show.
Mind the Gap is a small theatre company that produces plays originally written in French, German and Italian, or penned by English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh playwrights.