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The Lesson/Funstuff '91-'92

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THE LESSON

Synergy Theatre

FUNSTUFF '91-'92

at the Improvisation

I know, I know--everything these days brings to mind the clash between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. That's why I'm reluctant even to make the comparison. But I can't help it--I saw their conflict symbolically reenacted in The Lesson.

In this play, first staged in 1951, Eugene Ionesco once again attacks logic and reason, which he considers archenemies of the human spirit. This time, however, he takes special aim at words, the foot soldiers of logic and reason. According to Ionesco, words are hopelessly inadequate tools for building connections between people. He demonstrates this in the absurd encounter between an old professor and a pretty young woman who comes to him for tutoring.

At first the professor is exceedingly formal and polite. "Will you permit me, miss, that is, if you have no objections, to sit down opposite you?" he says after begging her to be seated at a table. Except for a lecherous gleam in his eye, his interest in her is carefully suppressed, obscured by his good manners. But she realizes it's there, and she's chatty and flirtatious, enjoying her subtle power over him.

As they start to talk, the balance of power gradually shifts. He is pleased to discover that she knows the capital of France, the four seasons of the year, and the sum of seven plus one. When she has trouble with subtraction, however, he grows annoyed. She has disappointed him by failing to respond correctly, and he inexplicably launches into a totally incomprehensible lecture on philology, the study of words and languages. As he lectures, the old professor becomes more overtly lecherous and aggressive while the young woman recedes into passive lethargy, rousing herself occasionally to whine, "I've got a toothache." Finally, in a frenzy, the professor begins to discourse on the word "knife." To emphasize his point, he holds up an imaginary knife and stabs the young woman. The knife exists only in words, but it kills her nevertheless.

This abrupt and shocking turn of events, driven by sexual energy and carried out solely through words, is what made me think of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Like the young student, Hill once tried to please a man she hoped would be her mentor and perhaps aroused some sexual interest in him. As she tells it, when she failed to respond "correctly," he began to assault her with words--vivid descriptions of pornographic movies, for example, and lewd remarks about his own sexual prowess. And at the hearings he bludgeoned her credibility with rhetoric.

The Thomas-Hill clash also resembled Ionesco's play in the sheer absurdity of the proceedings--the disregard of logic and reason, the use of words to obfuscate and deceive. The Thomas hearings also displayed those incongruous oppositions that Ionesco uses so well to challenge our notions of reality. The professor's age and dignified position contrast with his homicidal intentions, just as Thomas's smooth, respectable style as a witness belied his ruthlessness. The professor's subservient maid turns out to have enormous control over him, just as Thomas--subservient to the senators questioning him--turned out to have enormous power over them. And just as the professor uses language to bully his pupil, so Thomas's rebuttal, full of bloated, self-righteous indignation, enabled him to prevail over the Senate.

The Lesson and the Hill hearings illuminate each other so well that it's tempting to believe the Synergy Theatre Company deliberately selected the play for that purpose; but director Mark Fritts seems more intent on highlighting other aspects of the play--its humor, and its faint political comment at the end.

Fritts cast men in the two female roles of the student and the maid. Ionesco always tried to pack as many jarring elements into his plays as he could in order to undermine conventional ways of thinking, and Fritts's casting is true to that goal. Robert Bouwman plays the student as a bouncy, bright-eyed beauty with long blond braids that make him look like Heidi on steroids, and his artificially pert breasts are strategically aimed at the professor's face. In contrast, Rob Schneider makes no attempt to be feminine as the maid: his face is covered with stubble, he chews on a cigar and stomps around in combat boots, and, just before letting the student into the apartment, he pulls off his wig and uses it to sweep crumbs off the table. The use of gender in this way isn't symbolic; it's wonderfully absurd and funny.

Fritts does dabble a bit in symbolism at the end of the play, again taking his cue from Ionesco. After the professor kills the girl, the maid scolds him. "Now didn't I warn you," she yells, "philology leads to crime." But then she offers to help the old man dispose of the body, and when he starts to fret she hands him an arm band. "Wear this," she says. "Then you won't have anything more to be afraid of." In the script, Ionesco says the arm band bears an insignia, "perhaps the Nazi swastika." Fritts has the maid rummage through a drawer and pull out hats and arm bands from all sorts of repressive authorities, including the uniform of a Chicago police officer and a sign that says "hall monitor."

The rest of the play sticks closely to the script, with Mark Czoske deftly cranking up the professor's energy level to the murderous climax, which leaves him spent and limp.

The kids' comedy program Funstuff is about as far removed from the theater of the absurd as a show can get. Or is it?

Held every Saturday afternoon at the Improv on North Wells, Funstuff consists partly of skits developed through improvisation, similar in style to those performed at Second City; for example, there's one about parents enrolled in a class in classic scolding techniques.

But as the cast announces right at the beginning, this is not a show performed for children; it's a show performed with children. At one point, the cast divides the audience into groups and teaches them how to make different sounds with their mouths--cymbals, drums, a telephone busy signal. Then the cast puts the whole group back together, and the audience becomes a symphony of sorts.

Written by cast members Amy Lowe and Rick Mann, the show is aimed at children up to about age 12. Some of the humor, though, seems aimed primarily at parents. But most of it is accessible to grown-ups and children alike. "Larry Dutch, who knew too much," played by Jimmy Hallett, asks tough questions ("Who was Caspar the Friendly Ghost before he died?"). Penelope Petruses "with the fabulous excuses," played by Margaret Scott, maintains a hot line to help the kids devise the perfect excuse for every occasion. And Brooks Darrah is Sven Svenson, the Swedish symphony conductor who corrals a dozen kids from the audience and leads them in an odd rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." The show also includes magic by the Great Sidini, although Bibik, more comedian than magician, was standing in for him the day I was there.

Usually, a review like this would conclude by saying how great it is to have an alternative to Saturday-morning cartoons. But at the Improv kids can watch cartoons for 30 minutes before the show. And bring some quarters--the TV is located right next to a wall of video games.

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