Review: The Lesson (Modern Times Stage Company)


The Lesson, a classic aburdist show, is playing at Toronto’s Lower Ossington Theatre

The Lesson by Eugène Ionesco is a classic of the Absurdist canon. It is currently bring produced by Modern Times Stage Company and is an excruciating experience. But not because it’s bad: the play is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable and frustrated.

A young woman arrives at a Professor’s house for her first tutoring session. She cannot subtract but she has memorized every possible result of any two numbers being multiplied. The Professor, aghast at her rote learning, is determined to teach her concepts. His concepts, however, are long spouts of verbiage that can’t even be called “circular logic” because there is no logic in them at all.

Ionesco has such fun – dark, dark, fun – with nonsensical language, and it provides a great opportunity for an actor to experiment with the full range of their vocal abilities. David Ferry plays the Professor and is very much up to the task. He plumbs the depths of his lowest register and pierces our ears with the highest. He reaches a rapid rhythm any rapper would envy and then, just as you reach the point where you can’t take it anymore, he slows to a snail’s-pace cadence.

It’s a role that could easily outshine the other two characters, but in this production they definitely hold their own. My companion for the evening was struck by how painful it was to watch the Pupil get weaker and weaker while the Professor utterly ignores her plight. For most of the script she has one line – “I have a toothache” – that she repeats over and over again, and in hands less adept than Michelle Monteith’s this could become tiresome. Instead it is uncomfortable and frustrating, as The Lesson is meant to be.

The third character is the Professor’s Maid, who is the source of much of the humour in the show. She obsequiously caters to the Professor but also spies on him and warns him about his own tendency toward violence until ultimately she is entirely implicated in said violence. Played by Costa Tovarnisky, she is perfect, although I do wonder why a modern production can’t cast an actual woman in the role. It is traditionally played by a man, which makes a statement about the oppression of women, but the play is more than sixty years old now. I think it would be interesting to move beyond that and show that women can also be agents of oppression, not just victims of it. It would also give a nice choice part to a female actor, and such parts are still sorely lacking.

I’d like to give kudos to the set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Michelle Ramsay. The show is aesthetically striking, and hit all the right notes from the script. While I’m at it, let’s mention Soheil Parsa the director who took on the challenging task of taking of class Absurdism – never the most accessible genre – and making it work. This is a great production. It’s a show that hurts to watch, in a very good way.

Details

The Lesson plays at the Lower Ossington Theatre, 100A Ossington Ave until December 1st
– Shows are Tuesdays to Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2:30 pm
– Tickets are $25 Tuesdays through Thursdays, $35 Friday & Saturday, and $25 in advance or PWYC at the door for Sunday matinees
– For tickets call 416.915.6747 or visit www.lowerossingtontheatre.com

 Photo by John Lauener