Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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I Cram to Understand You

June 04, 2009

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in Oleanna
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009

If the fact that a play can produce a visceral emotional reaction is the primary marker of its success, then the revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna now on stage at the Mark Taper Forum is a big one. Of course those emotions are likely to be anger and disgust, but this is a Mamet play, so its not exactly unexpected territory. The paranoid set-up is now overly familiar. John, a college professor who is about to be given tenure and buy a new house, provides guidance to a student failing his class, Carol. However, the many ambiguities of this meeting are taken in radically different ways by the two involved parties as John, and the audience, later discover amidst accusations of sexual harassment and far worse. It’s a very one-sided argument in Mamet’s play with no veneer of balance for the audience's sake. Instead, the rather sympathetic and far more developed professor, is challenged by the much more ambiguous and two dimensional student. And while it's effective in eliciting an emotional response, it can also feel overwhelmingly manipulative at the same time.

The real question in my mind is how does a play that is so essentially unpleasant at its core and one so wrapped up in highly stilted and rather academic ideological discourse become so popularly produced on so many occasions since its 1993 debut. One reason of course is money- the same reason that likely led Oleanna to the Taper stage this year. A two-hander with one act in less than 90 minutes is always a good idea for companies in a pinch. It was likely a no-brainer for Center Theater Group after the cancellation of Uncle Vanya which was originally slated for June this year. But probably more important to the play's success than its economical production requirements, is that for some mysterious reason Oleanna fills seats. Especially when you put two very good and famous actors in it such as Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. Stiles is a veteran of the play, having appeared in a London production as recently as 2004. She handles the vulnerable and the angry with ease. Pullman has played down the professors negative attributes for maximum effect in a way I think Mamet would approve of.

Still, Oleanna is dryly ideological almost to a fault. Given the academic setting, most of what the characters spew is in a sort of academic jargon with its own internal rules and logic. In fact it often seems that the characters are speaking the lines of another play than the one they're in. Imagine someone reading A Midsummer Night's Dream while performing an autopsy and I think you about have the effect. (Of course we lovers of opera are already accustomed to this modus operandi.) It’s quintessential Mamet with not so much dialog, but an amalgamation of interrupted sentence fragments. Yet, the crowds seem to love it. And while you can't underestimate the joy elicited from seeing a legitimate star on stage, my suspicion is that most audiences like the play in spite of its more sophisticated ideas in favor of reveling in a sort of Fatal Attraction, student-from-hell exploitation narrative. As purely a play of ideas, Oleanna does score some points on both political and philosophical levels. It’s about power and communication and totalitarianism. In some ways the sexual harassment aspects of the piece seem little more than window dressing for this treatise on how some ideas and beliefs win out over others. As to whether or not this makes an enjoyable evening of theater, I suppose depends on your own tastes. Or at least on how much bile you can stomach.


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