BWW Review: OLEANNA: Still Controversial After All These Years
Written by David Mamet, Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; Scenic Designer, James F. Rotondo III; Costume Designer, AJ Jones; Lighting Designer, Bridget K. Doyle; Sound Designer, Arshan Gailus; Fight Choreographer, Matthew Dray; Stage Manager, Becca Freifeld
"Mission statement: New Repertory Theatre produces plays that speak powerfully to the vital ideas of our time." Case in point, David Mamet's Oleanna, an intense drama driven by themes of political correctness, sexual harassment, power, and perception. First produced in 1992, shortly after Anita Hill testified at the Senate hearings on Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court, the controversial play coincided with the nascent national dialogue about sexual harassment in the workplace. A quarter of a century later, the issue is splashed across newspapers and the internet, the most powerful man in the world is a self-proclaimed perpetrator, and many allege that there is an all-out war being waged against women. Featuring Johnny Lee Davenport and Obehi Janice, two of Boston's finest actors, New Rep's production of Oleanna is a searing enactment of an encounter gone horribly wrong that casts aspersions on both parties.
John (Davenport) is a college professor in his forties and Carol (Janice) is one of his twenty-something students who comes to his office regarding problems she is having in his class. The entire one-act play is a series of conversations between the two, each from a different perspective as the elevated platform stage is manually rotated during momentary scene breaks. In the initial encounter, John is seated behind his desk and speaking on the phone, while Carol stands across from him, awkwardly awaiting his attention. Although he invites her to be seated, it doesn't get much better for her as their stuttering dialogue is repeatedly interrupted by phone calls that feed John's distractedness about a pending real estate transaction. If you're keeping score on the power ledger, John = 1, Carol = 0.
During that first scene, Mamet's ellipsis-filled dialogue takes some getting used to, and the actors are not entirely comfortable with it, yet that seems to add to its veracity. In the ensuing scenes, there are numerous longer speeches as John and Carol state their positions and debate their versions of what transpired in their first meeting. The actors shift their characterizations as John expresses his incredulity and dismay that Carol has filed a complaint against him with the tenure committee, and she begins to gain the upper hand in the teacher-student relationship. The tables are turning and the staging reflects this as the turntable is shifted by a quarter turn, although John and Carol remain separated by his desk. He alternates between sitting and standing, while she stands with her feet firmly planted or leaning in much of the time. Even when seated, Carol virtually stands her ground, emboldened by the righteousness of her position and the outside backing of her "group" who support her and her allegations. As Carol gains confidence, Janice's spine seems to lengthen, her body solidify, and her voice resound, serving as a catalyst for Davenport's fight or flight response to the situation. Score: John = 1, Carol = 1 and counting.
At the start of the final scenario, the transfer of power is complete and John is depleted, but the circumstances are not static. In contrast to the slow, deliberate exposition of the first scene, this one features rapid changes and explosive developments. The characterizations involve a lot of nuance and flexibility, and Davenport and Janice meet the challenge individually and as a team. Director Elaine Vaan Hogue guides them in building the tension, turning the screws on each other's characters until their strings are ready to pop. When they reach the dramatic climax just prior to the conclusion, the actors have gone so deep into their roles, there is a moment when we can't be sure that they are only acting, and we hold our collective breaths awaiting the outcome. Final score: You make the call, but I'm not sure that anyone wins in this savage battle.
Davenport and Janice are totally spent when they take their bows, and it's no cakewalk for the audience, either. Oleanna is a tough play to sit through. It is not so much to be enjoyed as it is to be experienced or endured. The subject matter is discomfiting, albeit important and timely, and New Rep's production is a good vehicle to drive discussion. Unfortunately, Mamet has instituted a prohibition against post-performance conversations about his plays, so you're on your own in terms of processing your thoughts and emotions. Love it or not, it gives you plenty to think about on the ride home and, I suspect, for many days after seeing the show.