October 22, 2004—January 20, 2005
LA Times — Recommended!
Cast: Justin Davanzo, David Frank, Liz Pocock
The Lesson (La Leçon) It’s hardly news that Eugene Ionesco’s 1951 classic one-act comedy about an insane professor tutoring a brick-brained student helped usher in the Theater of the Absurd. Though an obsequious maid warns the professor not to get too carried away by frustration, the professor’s growing exasperation leads to his increasingly loopy teachings. The student simply cannot grasp the most remedial aspects of mathematics or philology and suffers growing head pains in direct proportion to the rising lunacy of the professor’s lectures, until their mutual rage ascends to a lethally deranged pitch. So much for the virtues of reason.
Director Frederique Michel flips the genders of each character so that the Professor (Liz Pocock) is a lisping woman, dominating and erotically teasing an arrogant, lunk-headed male (Justin Davanzo). This puts to bed the mythologies of political correctness and male authority under a single blanket. When David E. Frank’s bow-tied Butler opens the play striding across the stage with one of Monty Python’s funny walks, we’re instantly in an arch cartoon, and director Michel never lets the rigidly choreographed Warner Bros. style slip for a moment. You fear, near the start, that the physical intensity of Pocock bursting-at-the-seams has nowhere to go, yet her animation keeps growing until, by play’s end, she’s a whiplashed, quivering ball of sweat, still hitting every mark and sibilant “S” on cue. Davanzo and Frank are also fine.
When the homicidal professor dons a Republican National Committee armband, you might think Michel’s joking about No Child Left Behind, or you might just be pissed off by the intrusive topicality within Ionesco’s allegory. Charles A. Duncombe’s elegant, simple production design places the focus on the actors, right where it belongs.
Los Angeles Times
An Unorthodox ‘Lesson’ Plan
By Philip Brandes
Special to The Times
Leave it to City Garage, Santa Monica’s bastion of European avant-garde theater, to put a refreshingly unorthodox spin on Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic “The Lesson.”
Written in 1951, this darkly comic one-act depicts a nonsensical and increasingly menacing tutorial between a deranged professor and an obtuse pupil — an encounter laced with unsparing critiques of learning, authority and sexual politics.
With undiminished savagery, director Frederique Michel’s revival slyly turns Ionesco’s subtext of patriarchal domination on its head by switching the genders of the Professor (Liz Pocock) and her student (Justin Davanzo).
This risky tampering pays off in spades. Pocock’s stodgy, bespectacled Professor is a hilarious, pitch-perfect portrait of Freudian repression, complete with nervous tics, sputtering lisp and a horror of physical proximity to her overeager pupil. Far from neutralizing sex roles, the gender reversal highlights them in unexpected ways, as the initially timid, deferential Professor becomes aggressively dominant in the face of the pupil’s failure to live up to her impossible standards.
Her deteriorating grip on propriety and reality is the play’s centerpiece, which Pocock sustains with subtle mannerisms and equally accomplished broad physical slapstick in Michel’s demanding, highly choreographed movements. Charles A. Duncombe’s sparse, elegant production design contributes atmosphere without undue intrusion.
In pursuing his doctorate in “total knowledge,” Davanzo’s student gamely submits to the escalating abuse, his naive exuberance giving way to bewildered victimization in the face of feminist impulses run grotesquely amok.
Changing the Professor’s servant (David Frank) from maid to butler gives additional heft to his smarmy commentary, particularly in a finale seething with psychosexual overtones.
Backstage West – Critic’s Choice!
“La Leçon/The Lesson”
Reviewed By Paul Birchall
In Frederique Michel’s delightful production of Eugene Ionesco’s darkly absurdist comedy, a young Student (Justin Davanzo) arrives at a Paris home, excited for his first lesson with his new tutor: a tightly wound Professor (Liz Pocock). At first the Professor is diffident and unsure of himself, and the Student seems confident and optimistic. However, as the lesson continues, the balance of power shifts. The Student discovers he doesn’t know any of the answers, and an escalating toothache prevents him from concentrating on the Professor’s lecture. The Professor becomes increasingly unhinged, and he concludes his class by presenting his student with a long, hard, brutal gift that is anything but a diploma.
In most productions of Ionesco’s play, the Student is portrayed by a cheerful young female, while the role of the increasingly oppressive Professor is played by a man.
However, in her subtle staging, Michel flips the genders, adding an intriguing and indefinably disturbing sexual charge to the piece. The interactions have the feel of a creepy role-playing game, the characters playing out their parts in costumes that give them their personalities.
Michel’s direction, with blocking that’s choreographed to the slightest gesture and nuanced glance, boasts unusually focused comic timing. That said, a jarring, clumsy note is sounded the show’s final coda, in which the Professor dons an armband showing the emblem of the Republican Party. In most other productions, the armband is a Nazi swastika–the change is a thematic conceit that represents an awkward parallel with the modern day. In any case, Davanzo and Pocock play off each other hilariously in this otherwise cracklingly smart and intellectually bracing production. If you’ve never seen any Ionesco, this serves as a great introduction.