Thursday, January 25, 2007

TM's Oleanna Is Provocative, Upsetting

Posted on Thu, Jan 25, 2007 at 4:00 AM

I’m sorry to report that it’s curtains for Theatre Memphis’ appropriately troubling and thoughtfully staged production of David Mamet’s widely acclaimed Oleanna, which closes its run on the NextStage Sunday, January 28th. The 1992 show was culturally “on time,” having debuted just after the seating of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the subject of a very public sexual harassment hearing, and after 15-years it hasn’t aged a day. The play has been variously viewed as an indictment of the “feminist agenda,” a scathing criticism of political correctness gone amuck, and as a dark exploration of class and gender relations at the end of the 20th century. It has always been each of these things, and none of the above.

It’s easy enough to buy into the “Mamet as misogynist” theory, considering the writer’s macho, cigar-chomping image, and the horrors his male characters inflict on women in earlier scripts like the brutally brilliant Edmond, and the juvenile Sexual Perversity in Chicago. It’s not a completely baseless charge, but it’s one that completely (and unjustly) strips America’s most provocative living playwright of his complexity. Oleanna is, at its very core, a simple tragedy in the classic mold, about a person of privilege who, neither fully guilty or completely innocent, is brought low by pride and hypocrisy, and replaced by a system that will not and can not stand.

John, played with sensitivity, and explosive fury by Chris Hart, is happy with his job at an exclusive college, and in line for tenure. To celebrate that professional milestone he’s finally buying his castle: a nice house with a big back yard “for the boy.” His recently published book has proven incomprehensible to Carol, a failing student who hopes to appeal her grade. A deal is struck between student and teacher to forgo their traditional roles, and change the failing grade to an A. For John, this proves to be a deal with the devil that will rob him not only of his of his job but his dreams as well.

In the play’s first scene Lyric Peters’ Carol is an agitated bundle of confusion and impatience, unable to articulate her needs or understand anything that challenges her values. By act three she’s the angry, articulate, politically motivated spokesperson for a “group,” promising to drop all the charges she’s leveled against her teacher in exchange for the removal of his and other books from the reading list.

Are their sexual overtones in John’s words and actions? Mamet leaves it vague, and the answer can vary from show to show. In this case, however, the answer is no. Although John’s behavior may stink of paternalism and entitlement, his root intentions are basically noble and in keeping with his views as an educator. One also gets the sense that the only thing Hart’s autoamorous professor wants to feel up is his own reflection in the mirror.

Mamet’s attempts to write language as it’s actually spoken, then present it as a rigidly structured, nearly orchestral exercise can be hard on actors. Caught between the play’s hot emotion and the writer’s cold formalism both Hart and Peter sometimes stumble over one another, and lose their way. But neither ever completely lose sight of their intentions, and their committed performances keep the audience engaged even when the dialogue gets messy.

Mamet loves a good cypher, and in order to understand its intentions it’s important to understand the meaning of its mysterious title which is neither referenced or explained in the spoken text. “Oleanna” is the name of a 19th-century european folk song that, like the American hobo anthem “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” tells of a heavenly paradise where crops self-plant, “sweet beer” bubbles up from the earth, and luscious barbecued pigs walk the street asking if anyone would would like a slice of ham. In Oleanna, “the women” do all the work, and, “If she doesn't work hard enough/ she takes a stick/ And gives herself a beating.” The point here is that there is no paradise where things are easy, and even utopian environments like the ivy-covered walls of academia, or the lost Oleanna, have a dark side. Like its closest dramatic kin, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Oleanna isn’t an indictment of anything or anyone but a fair, unflinching jury trial.

by Chris Davis

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