Two absurdist shows are wowing audiences right now, on Toronto's biggest and smallest stages.
When we spoke with famed Canadian director and playwright Morris Panych about his approach to Max Frisch’s post-Second World War absurdist comedy The Arsonists for Canadian Stage, he said that he was drawn to it “through the back end.” Meaning, it was only when singer and songwriter Justin Rutledge had signed on to set the chorus parts to music that Panych finally felt connected to the weird, quirky script. After seeing it on the Bluma Appel stage, it’s clear that all the right elements are there: stunning design in set (Ken MacDonald), costumes (Charlotte Dean), lighting (Jason Hand), and sound (Emily Porter), complimented by fine acting from an esteemed cast. But it’s true, Rutledge’s original music is the hook that gives this purposefully frivolous play the edge it needs.
In the play, presented in Alistair Beaton’s English translation, a pair of arsonists (Dan Chameroy and Shawn Wright) all too easily talk their way into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Biedermann (Michael Ball and Fiona Reid). The Biedermanns, under the cover of civility, politeness, political correctness, and the belief that “not everyone’s an arsonist,” turn a blind eye to the arsonists’ increasingly obvious tricks.
To the Biedermanns, life inside their floral-wallpapered home is just how they like it: quiet and safe—as long as their neighbours are in danger, and not themselves (even if those neighbours are Mr. Biedermann’s former business partner and his wife). Short as the play is, the Biedermanns’ ignorance is only entertaining for so long. Various interludes from the all-knowing fire-brigade chorus, led by Rutledge and actress Sheila McCarthy (who plays both a firefighter and the Bidermanns’ wise maid, Anna) are crucial in bringing the absurdity back to reality.
You won’t leave The Arsonists with your mind ablaze with its message—it’s more of a slow-burning ember. But through the smoke and haze of a very odd script, Frisch’s original concept hasn’t decayed since it was written in 1953.
Two years before Frisch finished The Arsonists, the grandfather of “Theatre of the Absurd,” Eugène Ionesco, penned another allegory for the horrors of the Second World War, The Lesson, which he called a “comic drama.” The humour comes from a nonsensical lesson conducted by an elaborately garbed middle-aged male Professor for a pretty, young, and highly educated Pupil who struggles with simple concepts like subtraction and language. The drama comes from the Professor’s terrifying shift from placating prof to unruly dictator.
In Soheil Parsa’s current production, we’re immediately hit with a sense of foreboding as creaks and clanks echo in what seems to be a cavernous mansion/prison/secret lair of an evil genius (a haunting sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne). The Lesson takes place in a sparse white-and-red room designed by Anahita Dehbonehie, with specific features (several windows with sliding screens and an intercom system used by the Professor’s maid) that suggest constant surveillance. Bold lighting by Michelle Ramsay puts two black rolling chairs in the hot seat, and it also stands in for missing blackboards when needed. Actors Michelle Monteith and David Ferry are reunited for the first time since the multiple award-winning production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and their chemistry is again undeniable. Ferry’s rhythm and timing, from his early tremblings to later rage-filled tirades, is legendary. We’re horrified for Monteith’s innocent, but drawing a lesson from The Arsonists, we also want her to notice the Professor’s evil, shake her politeness, and just leave the room already.
In The Lesson, the Professor becomes his most crazed when teaching the (nonexistent) differences between Spanish and Neo-Spanish, asserting his power through a meaningless lesson. Today, leaders rely on sound bites and buzzwords (“taxpayer” and “gravy” coming to mind) that are slightly less abstract, but often equally as empty. The Lesson argues that whoever controls the discourse controls the power, and it’s hard to argue that that idea will ever become outdated. Its modern applications certainly add another dimension to the play, but the real draw to this particular production is Monteith and Ferry, a dynamic duo.