BWW Review: Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre Presents OLEANNA
Power, its use and abuse, is at the heart of OLEANNA, David Mamet's broadside against radical feminism, male privilege, and academic arrogance.
The angle of the play will depend on the decade and the director's lens. OLEANNA premiered in 1992 in the wake of the Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas controversy. Now, in the throes of the MeToo Movement and the Christine Blasey Ford v. Brett Kavanaugh hearings, OLEANNA rates a revival.
In Virginia Olivieri's edition of the drama (at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre through November 17th), an understandable choice has been made to represent the balance of power as uneven, even from the first scene. The scales of sentiment and sympathy seem more to favor the student plaintiff than the professor accused of sexual harassment. However, in the end, this bruising work will not ~ nor should it really ~ leave the audience with clear-cut verdicts regarding intention and culpability. That's the business of the conversation after the play.
When Carol (played initially with vehement vulnerability by Rachel Brumfield) seeks an explanation from John, her university professor, about the intent and meaning of his course, she is a student adrift in the overwhelming complexity of his academic verbiage and esoteric musings about the purpose and relative utility of higher education. While she may seem a basket case as he huffs and puffs in his officious haven of intellectual superiority, she is nonetheless dogged in her pursuit of an answer.
It's not difficult in a scenario like this to feel intimidated and ridiculed even if that's not the conscious intent of the professor. In fact, the perception of intimidation and ridicule are key ingredients in any claim of sexual harassment. In Carol's case, then, it's not hard to see what direction the drama will take.
Answers are hard to come by from the professor (a convincingly agitated Peter Cunniff) who is himself a bundle of nerves and vulnerability, his pomposity tempered by anxiety over pending decisions about his tenure and the purchase of a house. From the outset, John is not on an even keel. His conversation with Carol is constantly interrupted by calls from his unsettled wife about the unsettling negotiations over the house. Between calls, his utterances are frantic, feeble and stuttered attempts either to explain himself or to assuage Carol's concerns or to cultivate an unlikely bond. He goes so far as to indulge in challenging the proposition "that higher education is an unassailable good," hardly a point of comfort for Carol, who has struggled and sacrificed to get a college education. This is not a man at the top of his game ~ and there will be those, rightly or wrongly, who will see him as the unwitting victim of misperception.
When Carol returns to his office in a subsequent scene, she is a force of a different nature. She is the unrelenting claimant of sexual harassment, the representative of a righteous cause and the agent of a supportive sisterhood. In this regard, Rachel Blumfield takes a stunning turn in her performance, portraying a resolute champion of the oppressed. She has removed the gloves of fragility to reveal fists of steel.
Unnerved by the threats to his status, John becomes the supplicant. His entreaties that she retract her claim are met with fierce rejection. His days are in a dominoes mode ~ the purchase of a new and upgraded home dependent on tenure and tenure dependent on Carol's claim.
What we have here is escalation unchecked, the twain not standing a chance of meeting, diametrically opposed perceptions of intention and action, and an increasingly furious battle of wills that reaches its crescendo in a bruising final scene when an unrelenting Carol pushes John's button an inch too far.
At play's end, one should take a deep breath in preparation for what must, of necessity, be a candid conversation about power and privilege.
In what has been her ongoing commitment to present Mamet's works with fidelity to his themes and rhythms, director Olivieri has delivered a compelling and explosive version of OLEANNA.
OLEANNA runs through November 17th at Desert Stages Theatre, located inside Scottsdale Fashion Square.
Photo credit to Renee Ashlock
Desert Stages Theatre ~ 7014 E. Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale, AZ ~ Inside Scottsdale Fashion Square ~ https://www.desertstages.org/ ~ 480-483-1664