by David Lally · September 16, 2014
If you’re familiar with the Theater of the Absurd and specifically, Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson, will you enjoy Teach, Teacher, Teachest? Absolutely. If you’re not familiar with either, will this hinder your enjoyment of Teach, Teacher, Teachest? Absolutely not.
The plot is simple and adheres closely to Ionesco’s play. The Lesson is a study on the dangers of conformity and assimilation. So if he who controls our language controls our minds, what does this say about today’s world, where the rich are dubbed “job creators,” the poor are considered “takers,” and foreign nationalists are called “insurgents”? Playwright David Koteles bends the rules of communication and explores classic Ionesco themes of conformity, transformation, and the breakdown of language. A student (Laura Butler Rivera) arrives at a strange apartment to be tutored by a professor (Daniel Irizarry), and a dangerous game of cat and mouse unfolds, not only between the student and the professor, but also between the student and the professor’s strange maid (Michael Leonard). The original Ionesco play gives the ending away so I won’t spoil it here. But things get fast and furious quickly in Koteles’ fast-paced and relatively short play.
I’m familiar with Koteles’ work as he was a fellow playwright with me during this year’s Gilded Age Festival at the Metropolitan Playhouse (Koteles co-wrote Edison’s Elephant with Christopher Van Strander). If you saw Edison’s Elephant, which was a very straightforward play about Topsy the Elephant and his eventual electrocution, then you will not recognize the playwright’s work here. It is the complete opposite end of the spectrum and a talk with the playwright post-show confirmed that it is nothing like anything he has written before. Now I’m not here to comment on Koteles’ work at the Gilded Age Festival but as an avid playgoer who is familiar with many playwrights’ works, you tend to arrive at the theater with a certain set of expectations about what you will see. I have to say Koteles completely threw me for a loop in a very good way.
What really made the play interesting to me is how close it mirrors Ionesco’s original work in the sense that the play at first feels deliciously random and meaningless, but then, as it progresses, it’s not so much random as it is unexpected, and everything begins to transpire in a darker, deeper, more sinister way. But, as my theatre companion for the evening, who didn’t know any of the source material, said to me, “Who cares? It’s fun!” And it is, so much so, that you tend to forget about the darker elements happening right in front of you.
That’s because the cast of three artists, all from the physical theatre company One Eighth Theater, are so engaging to watch. Michael Leonard, Daniel Irizarry (who directed) and Laura Butler Rivera are simply luminous. All three are adept at the language the play demands and they bring such a high energetic style to the table that the piece is as much a work of physical theatre (think Cirque de Soleil) as it is about the clever and intricate language. I do have to give the edge though to Mr. Leonard, who manages to perform acrobatic feats effortlessly, whether he is completely upside down or stradling Ms. Rivera, while spitting out chunks of very complicated and intricate dialogue.
The jungle gym set is both imaginative and multi-purpose. Susan Zeeman Roger has created a world unto itself. Lucrecia Briceno’s lighting is almost as demanding as the physicality of the three artists. And the costumes by Aris Mejías were gorgeous and really helped flesh out the characters. Most importantly, they did not hinder the actors physically one bit.
For those who like to be challenged by theatre and for those who just want to shut off their brains and wrap themselves up in the fun, both will be satisfied by Teach, Teacher, Teachest. This professor gives it an A+.