Review: The Lesson

by Lynn on November 15, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following review was broadcast Friday, November 16, 2012 on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM THE LESSON at the Lower Ossington Theatre, until December 1.

The host was Rose Palmieri

1) Good Friday Morning. It’s time for some theatre talk with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer.

Hi Lynn. What’s on tap for this week?

Only one play this week Rose. It’s The Lesson by French playwright, Eugène Ionesco. He wrote it in 1950. It’s indicative of a type of theatre known as theatre of the absurd.

The story seems simple enough. A young pupil comes to a professor’s house for a lesson to help her prepare for her total doctoral exams in three weeks. She’s just graduated high school. She is anxious to learn, enthusiastic and bubbly.

They start simply with arithmetic. We get the hint that something might be amiss when the professor’s hovering, overseeing maid Marie, warns him about starting with arithmetic. The professor poopoos the idea.

He is kindly, eager to please and be accommodating. The pupil can add but not subtract. This riles the professor and he tends to be on edge during this part of the lesson. His good humour gives way slowly, subtly to aggravation, gritted teeth and a harder voice.

They move on to philology—the science of language, which really has Marie worried. She says that this is where the trouble usually begins. Again the professor discounts that but with a definite edge. He discourses. It seems like rambling, but he is in his element. The pupil becomes ill with an ever painful toothache. The professor doesn’t care and continues on. The lesson reaches a drastic, devastating climax.

2) What is the point of theatre of the absurd?

Ionesco writes about the absurdity of life, its frustrations etc. A pupil who wants to be a doctoral student and do the exams in three weeks, with only a high school diploma is absurd.

A pupil who can add but not subtract is absurd. But we certainly get the sense of some foreboding what with the warnings of Marie, the ever hardening of the attitude of the professor, and the increased pain of the pupil that renders her now into a writhing unresponsive person. What a change in her—once buoyant, now subservient.

And Ionesco uses this kind of theatre to slowly make his point. Time and place in the play are vague—not mentioned but we gradually realize where we are and when. The play is about power—the power of the professor over his hapless pupil. The power of Marie over the professor. And there are larger issues too—the professor as dictator.

In director Soheil Parsa’s wonderful, gripping production you’re never in doubt as to where he thinks we are with the play and who the professor really is. The play has a particular resonance for him.

3) How so.

Soheil Parsa is Iranian. He says in his program note why he is so fascinated with the play. He studied it in theatre school in Iran before the Islamic revolution of 1979.

He says: “the concept of dictatorship in The Lesson is familiar to me. I experienced it first hand in Iran. …Ionesco in The Lesson explores the concept of power through the use of language…dictators have always used language as a medium through which to exercise their power and dominate people.”

He formed his company, Modern Times Stage Company, to explore such notions of power, dictatorship, etc. in the productions he does. It’s one of the most provocative companies in the city, and Parsa is one of the most inventive, clear thinking directors who digs deep and realizes the author’s intention.

4) And does he realize Ionesco’s intention?

I think he does. The set (Anahita Dehbonehie) is bare except for a wall partly painted red, with slats in it for Marie to spy through. There are two chairs on wheels and that’s it. Those chairs are pushed, positioned and twirled for effective results. The lighting (Michelle Ramsay) sets out various playing areas in sharp illumination, sometimes off kilter, as is the world of the play.

The acting is stunning. As the professor, David Ferry starts off as a compact, tightly contained coil about to explode emotion. His thumbs are jammed into his vest pockets. His fingers are tight together, sometimes they flutter in impatience.

His voice is reedy at first and very soft. Then gradually it hardens and he quivers with pent up rage. He is the perfect example of dictators we know in history. As the pupil Michelle Monteith at first is delicate, enthusiastic, optimistic. Then as the Professor bears down she becomes confused, depressed, deflated. And in the scenes when she has a toothache, which sounds funny, we see it isn’t. Quietly, very subtly, she fists her hand trying to cope with the pain, shifts, rubs her leg to try and alleviate that pain. When he ignores her in a sense it’s like it’s torture. The audience immediately is invested in her situation. And as the maid, Costa Tovarnisky is a ball of energy and watchfulness. A man plays the maid. The world turned upside down.

5) The play and production seem very intense, why should we see it?

You should see it because The Lesson is rarely seen and it’s important to be reminded how easily it is for dictators to slip into our world.

You should see it because the production—directing, acting, design–is the kind of quality theatre we always need to see.

You should see it because Modern Times Stage Company is a company well worth our attention for its commitment to bringing us stories that have no cultural or political borders and speak to all of us.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at

THE LESSON plays at the Lower Ossington Theatre until December 1.

Leave a Comment

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Farahnaz November 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm

I completly agree with Lynn Slotkin, it’s realy worth seeing


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