BWW Reviews: Queensbury Theatre's OLEANNA is Provocative, Evocative
OLEANNA is quite possibly one of the most female-phobic, misogynistic writings on record, notwithstanding many of Hemingway's writings, penned by a man so distanced from the female perspective that Carol, a harridan of a character, was his best solemn reflection on a female student's experience of sexual harassment by a male professor approaching tenure.
It is possible that I am exaggerating for effect, which is the point. OLEANNA is an exaggeration - a complex exaggeration. From the obscure title referencing a 19th century fallacy that calls wilderness (as opposed to society) utopia to its stuttering prose, it is an intricate play. Somehow, in 90 pages, David Mamet includes a harsh takedown of academia, an institution that prides itself on its capacity for change while actively working to prevent it, while addressing sexual harassment, sexism and class. An argument could be made that the play also addresses race. But there is not enough space here to open up that can of worms.
THE BITCH SET HIM UP could be the alternate title of OLEANNA said theatre critic Daniel Mufson in 1993. An unsurprising response. OLEANNA is a play that warrants, even requires, a vulgar response. With such venomous, destructive characters at odds, how can the response be civil or rational? At the show I attended, one audience member, a woman, exclaimed "I want to choke her!" in reference to Carol. Her company, a man, countered saying that John was naive. Two young women in the front row, scarcely older than Carol, cringed each time John encroached upon Carol's space. And, at the end of the play, there were cheers, whistles and stinging hands from all of the clapping.
I understand that it is unconventional to begin a review with audience reaction. But I believe the audience is central to the play. The meaning of the play is not simply in the performances or the set or the transition music. It is found in the audience. I urge Houstonites to see the play so that they can see themselves. But, first, I would like to discuss the production, including the transition music.
Director Stuart Purdy's set design and direction were beautifully done. The director manages to add stillness within the rapid movement of the play. In several scenes, the actors' seemed to be captured in time while the torrential storm of their actions moved around them. The placement of the props and set added to the intensity of the play as well. Throughout the play my eye was constantly drawn to an (often) empty chair. As the performance continued it became clear to me that this chair was of unique importance. It was Chekhov's gun. Yet it was never referenced.
Harold Pinter describes John as "a pretty pompous guy who loves his own authority and his own position."
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett nails it. His performance is solid and smoothly connected and compelling. He manages to meld the smug, nice-guyness with the underlying, but increasingly evident, hostility of the character perfectly. Though the decision to make John's character grounded rather than heightened weighs down the first act, when it works, it really works. Lockett unearths the depth to the character that I could not see on the page. At times, he even surprises me with his choices. I enjoy his physicality as well. Through him, John violates Carol's boundaries magnificently. He intimidates, flirts, struts and postures just as Carol accuses. During the first scene, he sits near Carol with his legs positioned so suggestively I half expect him to splay his legs open in invitation. But that would be a different type of play.
Keshia Lovewell's (Carol) efforts are admirable but her performance is more sketch than complete drawing. This is understable since she has recently come into the role after actress Clarity Welch welched. Seeing what she has achieved in the short amount of time she has had to prepare, I expect her to add the necessary shades and hues as the run continues.
That said, I am opposed to her interpretation of Carol. In Lovewell's hands, Carol appears, first, as frigid and oversensitive, then, as the play progresses, outright hysterical. I would like more subtlety and groundedness in her performance.
In this play there is no right or wrong. But with this interpretation of the character, I do not sympathize with Carol's perspective at all. The audience members I quoted above were not arguing Carol's rightness. They were arguing the level of Carol's wrongness in relation to John's stupidity.
But I will admit the stylistic opposition I found in the actor's performances put in my mind the performances of Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando in the film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" which I did enjoy.
The Costume Design is a highlight of the production- it supports each actor's performance - but it is dated. Professors wear khakis and button down shirts now. And Carol's outfit in the second act is something you would likely see a stereotypical feminist wearing in her mid to late thirties - in Portland.
As for the transition music, it was appropriately abrupt. And deceptively sweet. Like our lead female character in act one.
Overall, Queensbury Theatre's OLEANNA is a well-done, well thought out production of an important play. See it.
OLEANNA, produced by Queensbury Theatre (formerly The Country Playhouse), runs in Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St., Houston, 77007 from June 26 - July 19, 2014 (no performance July 4). Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and on Sunday, July 13 at 2pm. For tickets and more information, visit www.queensburytheatre.org or qtoleanna.eventbrite.com.