Theater Contra- The Lesson

The Take-Away 

  • The experience of watching life imitate Theatre of the Absurd and Theatre of the Absurd imitate life is terrifying (and maybe that’s the point)

  • Unique concept by a majority female production team provides the audience a clear vision of an eerily realistic dystopia

  • This challenging inaugural production provides Philadelphians a sneak peek of a promising new company

 

In my pockets:

I have worked with some of the artists involved in this production.

I really disliked Theatre of the Absurd going into this production. My only experience with it has been amateur productions of new works inspired by Absurdist playwrights and reading these sort of plays for college classes. I saw my first Ionesco play last year and found it to be a complete waste of my time so I didn’t know what to expect with one of his “lesser-performed works” because that’s usually a polite way of saying “lower in quality.” Essentially, I admit that I did not have the best exposure to this genre prior to Theatre Contra’s production.

 

The Design

When I entered the theater and made my way to my seat, I saw multiple brown crates with stacked, blood-red hardcover books throughout the audience space. My inner bookworm immediately drew my eye to the red book lying on the crate next to me. It was opened to a passage from a mystery novel filled with witty banter and word play between a detective and friend of the murder victim that ended with:

“There was more here than meets the eye.”

“Meaning what?”

The cliffhanger in this excerpt would foreshadow the confusion and the conversations that would follow as a result of my viewing of The Lesson.

Before the house lights go out, Maid 1 and Maid 2 (Stephanie Iozzia and Matt McWilliams) move down the center aisle in gray cloaks bearing a logo that is a hybrid of a key and female symbol. Wearing red gloves, they meticulously clean the room. The look was reminiscent of the Handmaid’s Tale.

 Ryann Carey’s set was flooded with red and blue light (Angela Myer) which enhanced pivotal stage pictures. My favorite lighting effect was the silhouette of a window that cast beautiful patterns on the floor and the actors for melodramatic effect.

The innocent and youthful Pupil (Paige Martini) enters, looking as if she has just arrived straight from a French private school. She awaits the Professor (Patrick Romano), who enters shortly after in a look that gave me the vibe of an adjunct English or Philosophy professor at a liberal arts college. Everything about Carey’s costumes screams order – Martini’s blouse is pristine, Romano’s pants are pressed and neat, and the Maids are uniform and clean.

The well ordered costumes contrast starkly with the world that devolved in real time as we listen in and watch the Pupil take out a cartoonishly large yellow pencil and notepad to take notes on the lesson taught by the Professor, ranging in topics from math and logic to the meaning of words and life. Scattered throughout the fast-paced dialogue, an eerie sound effect (crafted by Christine Freije) starts playing mind games with us, leaving us to wonder if it is real or a figment of our imaginations.

Theatre Contra’s logo is a closed-fist punching a backward “C”so I was eager to see the fight choreography. The fight builds throughout the play, and these moments were both somber and tragic, particularly when the audience is told that the death violence is systemic.  In its wake, the Maids and Professor quickly attempt to clean up the room and restore all the items to their chalk-outlined position to begin a new lesson all over again.

Talk about the performances:

The chemistry in the ensemble aided the effective storytelling. The Maids lacked emotion and empathy and completed their tasks like robots. Martini’s Disney Princess aesthetic enhanced her natural grace. I believed her even as her actions became more and more absurd. Romano was a particular standout. His ability to spout non sequiturs and elaborate monologues with ease, purpose, and rhythm is virtuosic. Watching his dramatic character shift was impressive from an emerging artist.

 

Direction

This play creates a society controlled by a white patriarchal ethnostate where womxn’s thoughts, beliefs, and truths are dismantled through gaslighting, resulting in the physical and emotional abuse of womxn.  I appreciated how Ide developed this world because I felt it elevated the script and gave deeper meaning to the characters and their actions. I found it powerful and refreshing that Ionesco’s words were placed in her very capable hands and those of a production team of mostly female and queer artists and artists of color.

Accountability

There were only white-presenting bodies on stage, but people of color contributed to the overall production elements. Through adapting the words of a male Romanian-French writer about an academic that, as the program book mentions, “uses the meaning he assigns to words to establish tyrannical dominance over an eager female pupil,” this production handles a contemporary revival very well. 

The bleak future the production team created showed the audience a world that can come into existence when we contextualize the long-term impact of white supremacy and the patriarchy on our society, particularly when these systems manifest themselves in the people that control our government, economy, education, and media. The white supremacist empire that exists in this production could come to fruition if we as a collective are complicit in the actions and words we normalize.

 

Since watching this show, I have found multiple connections between the play and America’s current reality. As I watch our government feed the public untruths,  I acknowledge that we are trapped in the situation of the Pupil by a Professor that is being supported by the complicit words, behaviors, and actions of the Maids.

It is fascinating to me that a play that was written as a reaction to a chaotic post-WWII world filled with uncertainty, confusion, and distrust resonates in our world.  I am thankful that this play has reminded me that now is not normal – truth is non-partisan, even when the definition of truth loses its meaning. I am grateful that The Lesson presented a reality that reminds me of my own and labeled it with a word as perfect as absurd.

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