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An unorthodox ‘Lesson’ plan

Special to The Times

Leave it to City Garage, Santa Monica’s bastion of European avant-garde theater, to put a refreshingly unorthodox spin on Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic “The Lesson.”

Written in 1951, this darkly comic one-act depicts a nonsensical and increasingly menacing tutorial between a deranged professor and an obtuse pupil -- an encounter laced with unsparing critiques of learning, authority and sexual politics.

With undiminished savagery, director Frederique Michel’s revival slyly turns Ionesco’s subtext of patriarchal domination on its head by switching the genders of the Professor (Liz Pocock) and her student (Justin Davanzo).

This risky tampering pays off in spades. Pocock’s stodgy, bespectacled Professor is a hilarious, pitch-perfect portrait of Freudian repression, complete with nervous tics, sputtering lisp and a horror of physical proximity to her overeager pupil. Far from neutralizing sex roles, the gender reversal highlights them in unexpected ways, as the initially timid, deferential Professor becomes aggressively dominant in the face of the pupil’s failure to live up to her impossible standards.

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Her deteriorating grip on propriety and reality is the play’s centerpiece, which Pocock sustains with subtle mannerisms and equally accomplished broad physical slapstick in Michel’s demanding, highly choreographed movements. Charles A. Duncombe’s sparse, elegant production design contributes atmosphere without undue intrusion.

In pursuing his doctorate in “total knowledge,” Davanzo’s student gamely submits to the escalating abuse, his naive exuberance giving way to bewildered victimization in the face of feminist impulses run grotesquely amok.

Changing the Professor’s servant (David Frank) from maid to butler gives additional heft to his smarmy commentary, particularly in a finale seething with psychosexual overtones.

*

‘The Lesson’

Where: City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley), Santa Monica

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 12

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Price: $20

Contact: (310) 319-9939

Running time: 1 hour


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