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 Potasnik) 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.