Troupe masters Ionesco’s difficult Lesson

A team of Times Colonist reviewers is covering the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival, running to Sept. 1. All critiques use a five-star grading system.

The Lesson

Where: Downtown Activity Centre

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When: Aug. 25, Aug. 28, 31, Sept. 1

Rating: Four stars

The phrase “for the serious theatre-goer” is off-putting for some.

Don’t be afraid.

Victoria’s Dandelion Theatre has remounted The Lesson, a 1950 absurdist farce by Eugene Ionesco. At 55 minutes, this lively, well-acted production is a good introduction to a difficult playwright.

The one-act play starts normally enough. A fresh-faced pupil (Melissa Blank) meets her new professor (Eric Grace). She wants to prepare for taking her “total doctrate.” However, we soon see the student is woefully inadequate; she can add but has trouble with grade-school subtraction.

Meanwhile, the professor — initially polite and charming — works himself into a Basil Fawlty-like froth, spouting nonsense about the similarities of the Spanish, neo-Spanish and Romanian languages and so forth. When the pupil complains of feeling ill, the professor orders her to shut up and lap up the utter bilge he’s spewing.

Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, we realize Ionesco is satirizing the brainwashing techniques of totalitarian regimes. It’s as relevant today as ever (we don’t really need the stage prop — a book adorned with a swastika — to prompt us).

The broad, farcical acting style employed by Blank and Grace, which makes Ionesco’s dense script palatable, is well-suited to The Lesson. Naomi Simpson is also strong as the maid.

It’s not for everyone, but serious theatre-goers will enjoy it.

Adrian Chamberlain

The Occupied Mind of Mr. K

Where: Metro Studio

When: Aug. 25, 27, 30, 31

Rating: 2 1/2 stars

Ostensibly inspired by an Indian folk tale about students who used their yogic powers to take over the mind of a king, Victoria playwright John Demmery Green draws, with mixed results, amusing parallels to the economic insanity that sparked the Occupy Movement in a surreal satire with enough witty dialogue to smooth out its rough edges. Between the title’s clever double meaning and the ear-splitting Occupy Wall Street rock anthem that opens his hour-long dark comedy, Green swiftly makes his satirical intentions clear. Billionaires are today’s medieval kings. When one such “one per cent” type dies, Vijay, an unemployed programmer, and his manic buddy Dylan persuade Pericles, a guru, to inhabit the tycoon’s vacant mind and body. Alex Carson, coming across like an Indo-Canadian Seth Rogen, and Alex Judd, ridiculously over-the-top as his scruffy fellow schemer, colourfully inhabit characters who’d be at home in a Hollywood slackers comedy. They’re less successful negotiating the mounting satirical tropes, however. Randi Edmundson as the billionaire’s gold-digging wife also has her moments until her character crumbles under the weight of clichés that combined with an overwrought conclusion makes this romp seem flabbier than it should be.

Michael D. Reid

Something Like a War

Where: Metro Studio

When: Aug. 27, 29, 31, Sept. 1

Rating: Three stars

“Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true,” Yogi Berra famously declared. Although Corin Wrigley certainly doesn’t deify his baseball hero Ty Cobb, the 17-year-old Victoria playwright puts his own spin on Berra’s observation, but in reference to the legendary Detroit Tigers outfielder, a.k.a. the Georgia Peach, whose ball-playing brilliance was matched by controversy, notably allegations of racism and violence. Portraying this cocky, driven baseball legend with a persuasive Southern accent, Wrigley has impressively compressed highlights from Cobb’s personal and professional lives over six decades. Although performances range from one as wooden as a Louisville Slugger to Graham Roebuck’s nice work as teammate Sam Crawford, a compact cast effectively assumes multiple roles. They include Cobb’s mother, who accidentally killed Cobb’s father in 1905; Babe Ruth; and Ban Johnson, the American League president who suspended Cobb, sparking a walkout by teammates. Wrigley’s minimalist piece, which effectively employs voiceovers and vintage time cards to put the historical drama into perspective, crisply addresses a wide range of issues under the fluid direction of Brian Wrigley, who also plays Babe Ruth. It includes Cobb’s tonsilitis, his being mercilessly bullied as a rookie, his “persecution complex,” marital strife, alcoholism and alleged racism and violence, includng his infamous attack of a disabled black heckler in 1912, and the “Chicago Black Sox” scandal. A vignette in which a reporter grabs print bites from Babe Ruth and Cobb amid their rivalry, worked particularly well. If Wrigley can address some performance issues that slightly marred Saturday’s production— characters not directly facing the audience needed to project and speak more clearly — they could knock it out of the park.

Michael D. Reid

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