If a professor so intolerant that his rage is literally murderous doesn’t sound like the subject of comedy, then you aren’t living in the world of Eugène Ionesco. Enthusiastically residing in this deranged place are the cast of and the creative team behind The Collective’s production of Ionesco’s play, The Lesson . With the actors’ giddy insanity, the play becomes a comedy of ridiculous proportions that, while excessive compared to the wit of Ionesco’s text, effectively conveys his criticisms. By downplaying the darker notes, this production limits the social commentary in a play that mocks pedants. The Lesson is an increasingly bizarre exchange between an egomaniacal professor and his young student. A simple lesson turns malicious when the pupil has difficulty understanding her teacher. With characteristically destructive arrogance, the Professor dismisses his maid’s warning: “philology leads to calamity.” The Collective cheekily begins the show saying, “some people never learn.”
The production is enjoyable largely because of the hilarious portrayals by a talented cast, particularly Robert Grant as the Professor. Grant’s towering stature is a funny joke in itself (one echoed in the large shadows he casts on a gray wall). From the moment he enters the stage through a door frame that barely accommodates him, clad in knee-high black boots and a military jacket, he draws laughs. The decision to dress the Professor in military getup, instead of Ionesco’s requested cloak and skullcap, shifts the play’s indictment of power from the religious to the political. It is also a more blunt parody of a certain personality type.
The Professor dwarfs his pupil, played by the petite actress Rachelle Wintzen, dressed in a schoolgirl’s perversely sexual outfit. Initially, a strange dynamic sets the pair on equal footing—they are both very awkward—but the Professor’s dominance is soon clear. In the wake of his deep Germanic voice (the kind often used when mocking academics), the pupil’s squeaks sound more childish. From the start the Professor’s intentions seem less than pure; he rubs his hands like someone anticipating an acquisition.
Though the production attempts to work with the play’s sexual insinuations, given the over-the-top comical performances, the Professor’s sexual advances are funny rather than lewd. Instead, Grant’s exaggerated gestures and voice highlight his character’s immaturity and impetuousness. His relationship with his maid, played by Elizabeth Steinhart, similarly demonstrates his weaknesses. Though Steinhart is too young and attractive to be a matronly servant, her booming voice matches Grant’s, and she holds her own. Steinhart does a fine job with a character whose motivation is the least understandable. The maid is the only one who relates cause and effect, but she does not stop calamity.
The play takes a dark turn when the pupil begins to suffer from a toothache. The Professor grows louder and more threatening as the pupil becomes meeker and wearier. The lesson climaxes when his rage, combined with his exhilaration, lead him to stab his pupil. During this exchange the stage lighting (by Randy Harmon) assumes a more lurid vibrancy. In this light, the tension and speed of the escalating dialog become palpable; the sweat on the Professor’s brow glistens, as do his large teeth and wild eyes. When he releases his rage by striking the student, it is shocking, but expected.
The Professor’s transformation is strange in Ionesco’s play, but the turn in this production is less comprehensible. Since the overall tone is light, the Professor is never sinister, and his final actions seem too impossible to be taken seriously. Sometimes the production seems hesitant to explore the character’s darker qualities. For example, whereas Ionesco calls for the Professor to twist his pupil’s wrist, The Collective’s bouncy Professor timidly grabs her ponytail.
The humorous interpretations of the cast are reinforced by Jessica Forsythe’s direction. Forsythe uses the sitting and rising of the Professor and pupil to mimic the seesawing shifts in power. Mostly, she allows Grant to dominate the stage, as he does the lesson. Additionally, Forsythe wisely uses a sparse set. The large table/desk presents a formidable obstacle between the professor and his pupil, and acts as a second stage and prop. In one scene, when his student correctly answers a series of questions, the Professor grasps one end of the table with exceeding exhilaration, while at the other end she shrieks with corresponding excitement.
As strange as the dialog and plot often seem, the appearance of a Nazi armband is a reminder that a familiar world can be just as senselessly brutal. In the microcosm of the Professor’s apartment his behavior is comical, but for a society that laughs at his intolerance the implications of the unlearned lesson are disquieting. Even if such dark themes are only touched upon in this production, Grant’s performance alone makes the show worth watching. Considering that The Lesson is The Collective’s first production, it’s exciting to think about how the group will apply such fierce energy to other works.