Wednesday, April 22, 2015

AUM: "The Lesson"

In a mere 45-minutes' playing time, Theatre AUM's version of absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson (1950) manages to both entertain and infuriate. Ever cognizant of its educational theatre mission, AUM's Theatre Department regularly offers a wide variety of dramatic styles for local audiences to experience, and for their students to explore beyond the classroom, essentials for a well-rounded education.

Theatre of the Absurd plays are not always easily digestible, as they show a world that defies logic, one which can not be comprehended, leaving mankind to maneuver a world vacant of meaning in seemingly foolish ways. -- So, here is The Lesson, a "comic drama" in which a Pupil [Haeley DePace] comes to the Professor [Allyson Lee] to prepare to take the "complete doctorate" exams. Add in a Maid [Blaire Casey] who serves as a kind of gatekeeper into this hell as well as a conscience for the Professor, and the stage is set.

Simple arithmetic and basic language lessons deteriorate into confrontations on "literal" vs. "theoretical" approaches with their concurrent frustrations that result in deadly violence and the knowledge that this is but one in a long series of similar lessons that will be repeated ad infinitum and with the same results. Reminiscences of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot are hard to miss.

Played on Frank Thomas' dark Spartan set [a raked rectangle with walls, doors, and a few sticks of furniture], director Val Winkelman has chosen to emphasize the comic side of Ionesco's "comic drama", and abetted by La'Brandon Tyre's garishly toned clown costumes, guides her all-female cast of three through their paces. -- Curiously and confusingly, some gender-specific references to the professor as "him" or "sir" have been retained, leaving one to wonder how the dynamic between the Professor and the Pupil might have been in Ionesco's original, since virtually no sexual tension between them is evident in this production.

With exaggerated movement and physical reactions, voices that range from naturalistic tones to heightened screeching, and adding contemporary popular culture references to such films as The Princess Bride and Chicago, Ms. Winkelman's ensemble are fully committed to their roles, and clown around with gusto.

But underneath the buffoonery there are serious layers. Especially topical is the commentary on the state of an educational system that gets so bogged down in theory and the need to understand mathematical processes and linguistic subtleties above and beyond rote memory with its simple answers, points out some of the confusion and arguments facing public education today. -- While this almost gets lost amidst the frenetic antics, it is ample reason for Theatre AUM's educational theatre mission to produce a play that still resonates some 65 years after its debut.