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25 March 2007

itp's Oleanna

Editor's note: this review is www.mountainx.com, the Mountian Xpress website. You can read original posting at http://www.mountainx.com/ae/2007/play_review_oleanna_at_nc_stage


Play Review: Oleanna at NC Stage

by Alli Marshall on 03/22/2007

It’s telling that title of this two-person David Mamet play is completely obscure. It’s taken from a 19th century folk song that references the ideal of utopian societies. Got that?

The play, performed by immediate theatre project (itp) at NC Stage Company, is not an easy one to watch—though certainly not due to the dramatic talents of stars Katie Fuller and Peter Tamm. The show revolves around the interactions between a pompous, self-absorbed (though likely harmless) university professor and his disturbed female student in jeopardy of failing a course. Following these characters over three acts, Oleanna deconstructs the source and use of power—both real and imagined—between these two people.

Interestingly, Mamet wrote the play 15 years ago (a year after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, notes Wikipedia.org). My initial reaction as a viewer, with no previous knowledge of the show, was that seeing an older man paired with a college-aged woman screamed “taboo,” especially with the collegiate setting thrown in to the mix. Is it just that recent events involving alleged teacher abuses of students makes any teacher-student interaction suspect? Has too much political correctness poisoned our collective perception? These are some of the questions around which Oleanna dances.

ITP’s staging of the play has the two characters both facing the audience, the stage split by white electrical tape. Professor John sits behind his desk regarding two chalk-drawn squares representing two chairs, while student Carol sits in one of the chairs facing a large chalked rectangle representing John’s desk. They both deliver their lines in halting, awkward, oft-interrupted phrasing that builds tension and confusion. The trick is, they interact with each other without actually looking at each other, the entire time addressing their speech to the audience. It’s a clever approach that doesn’t fully reveal its effectiveness until the first eruptive moment of physical contact.

As far as the characters go, Tamm offers up a deliberately contrived intellectual, bolstered by self-importance and pretension. “I asked myself if I engaged in heterodoxy,” he says at one point. And, “You find me pedantic.” He seems to be teaching a course based on his own life experience and self-examination.

Fuller, meanwhile, plays Carol as a creepier version of Ally Sheedy’s “Alison the Basketcase” in The Breakfast Club. Think class misfit-meets-recently converted femi-nazi with the lingo to boot. Words like “hypocrisy,” “elitism” and “exploitive” pepper her speech. As the scenes progress, Carol’s appearance shifts from disheveled and dumpy to pulled together and militant while John evolves from button-downed to unglued. It’s worth noting that William H. Macy starred in the debut.

As I said, Oleanna isn’t a fun show, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. In fact, I found myself rushing from the theater with the rest of the audience after the final terse moments, no more clear on the point than when the play began. That said, it’s completely worth seeing—especially for theater-goers who like their drama on the dark side. The play moves briskly along without a single dull moment and the outcome—obtuse as it may be—will have viewers questioning many commonly held conceptions.

Oleanna runs through Sunday, Apr. 1, Wednesday-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 Wednesdays and Sundays, $15 other nights. 350-9090.

Arcadia at Warren Wilson

Tom Stoppard is known for his erudite, word-heavy plays that sometimes seem designed to obfuscate as much as to edify or amuse, although they certainly do that, too. His current Broadway play cycle, The Coast of Utopia is cut across such a wide swath of obscure Russian academia of a hundred years ago, that the program includes helpful suggestions for further (heavy) reading, at least one of which quickly became one of the most coveted and hard to find books in New York, and only partly because so few of them were on the shelves to begin with. Warren Wilson College’s recent production of Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Ron Bashford, also included several pages of definitions and explanations of words and phrases in the program, which were helpful, but even without this lexicon, the show was understandable and enjoyable, despite—and of course because of—Mr Stoppard’s strong style.

The play opens with an evocative and surprisingly exciting moment in which a character we will later know as the nearly silent child Gus walks to center stage, sits upon an elaborately upholstered chair, and bites into an apple, savoring every bite. What this has to do with the play itself only starts to become clear much later, but the moment is a brilliant way of arousing the imagination and the senses in anticipation of whatever may follow this unusual and surprising beginning.

What follows, of course, is a romp through poetry, journalism, dahlias, thermodynamics, dueling, love, education, adultery, turtles, dancing, chaos theory, and time. For starters. That all of this is actually interesting and relatively easy to follow is a testament to the skill and hard work of the students and their director.

Mr Bashford has a way of working with actors that both encourages creativity and demands a high level of commitment to the text and to one’s fellow actors, and this approach pays off from the first spoken words. The play starts with a lead actor in conversation with a servant, a minor role, but it is immediately clear that both actors have been asked to put a lot of effort into both the outward aspects of their roles, including consistently good English accents, but also into establishing real connections with each other. Without that human connection shared between all of the cast, the play could easily devolve into a bunch of over privileged academics going on about obscure theories for two hours. Instead, we get a glimpse into the lives of people who sometimes let their academic aspiration get the better of themselves, but who struggle with love and work, who try to exist as strangers, as lovers, and as family, and who care deeply about themselves, their fellows, and their sometimes eccentric pastimes.

Stoppard’s plot, a story set in both 1809 and the present, can take a long time to unfold, but it is fascinating stuff, and these young performers are able to make it consistently interesting, funny, and even exciting, in a subtle sort of way. Come to this play prepared to listen. But don’t think too much—just listen to the words, and trust that the actors have quite a good idea how to get where they are going.

--Willie Repoley

18 March 2007

Asheville Puppetry Alliance’s Rapunzel

I have not seen much children’s theatre, and my knowledge of puppetry is pretty much limited to having read Pinocchio and seen Being John Malkovich. Also, I am not a child, nor do I have any. I am certainly not the target audience for Rapunzel, presented by Pamella O’Conner.

Which is all to say that I didn’t like the show all that much. It is certainly not that the show was simply bad; I do think that most of the children were interested, as were their parents, I’m sure, and I am glad that they had the opportunity to experience live theatre and the specific magic of puppets. I just thought that the show was ultimately rather soulless.

Let’s start with the script. What do you do with a fairy tale, in our modern age? Does it have to be modernized or moralized or scrutinized to death? Or should it just be told simply, assuming that whatever out-dated moral lessons of the story will not harm the child hearing the story? I don’t know. It’s a complicated question. I do know that I found it uncomfortable to be presented with the stereotypes of Rapunzel without any thought (that I could see) into how these myths could be viewed more expansively, more creatively. Instead, we are presented with the wife whose unreasonable demands land her husband in trouble, the prince whose offer of marriage leads to the happy ending, et cetera. I’m not saying that every fairy tale has to be updated or made politically correct or whatever, I’m just saying that in this case, the issue seemed unexamined, and I noticed it. A few things were indeed brought out—the old lady, here called Mother Gothel, is called an old fairy, and has a strong connection to the earth and to plants and to the air. But this connection is not explored and her need for a child to love and protect and to raise as her own is likewise ignored. I wanted the play to ask why! The character was really interesting, but frustratingly unexamined. Maybe kids just want the story they know, I’m no expert, but if we can also give them something more, isn’t a shame not to?

At any rate, it seems to me that there are three things to hope for in a children’s show, and none of them were espesially well represented at the performance I saw. One is lots of giggling. This show had a little, but not much. Second is children getting involved and talking to the performers. Now, clearly this is not the best model for all children’s shows, but I think it would have been appropriate for this show, and in my opinion, would have strengthened it considerably. Near the end of the show, O’Conner did ask the children to echo Mother Gothel’s sing-song chant, which they did enthusiastically, but I wonder why this device was not employed from the old woman’s first entrance! The last thing I look for in a great kid’s show is that awed gasp from all the children at some effect that simply cannot be achieved through television or other mediums they may have experienced. There were a few moments that seemed designed to do this, but they did not really work. (Actually, some of those moments were transitions to shadow puppets, but the shadow puppets were actually a little confusing; my companion was not very familiar with shadow puppets and did not recognize them as such, and I am sure that many of the children saw nothing but a movie screen on which the colorless figures moved very jerkily for some unknown reason. At the end of the performance, O’Conner showed the kids how some of the puppets—including the shadow puppets— worked, and I found myself wondering if the show would have been more effective if that demonstration had taken place before performance rather that after. I think being “in” on the magic can actually enhance the experience in a show like this, rather than detract from it.) Rapunzel is a familiar story, and although it has many variations, we all basically know what is going to happen, so it seems to me that the opportunity in making it a great show—rather than just a story-book on stage—is in reexamining the themes and characters of the myth itself. I say either take this dark and disturbing story and really explore that direction (although the resulting show may not be for children!) or take this dark and disturbing story and push against it to create something that finds real humor and magic through the darkness. I’ll never forget a production I saw of Cinderella, another dark story, that featured a lot of slapstick, including some darkly funny stuff like toes being chopped off and tossed into the audience (which the kids absolutely loved) as well as silly antics that had the audience in stitches, with many children yelling at the performers (“Look behind you! The other way! No, the other way!”), and also had some of the quietest, most magical and creative moments I had ever seen on stage. And those moments worked in large part because they had been earned: The show had already drawn the audience in with laughter and therefore allowed us to be open to the possibility that a few bunches of newspaper could take on a shape and a life of their own…

I guess that’s what I’m driving at, really. O’Conner’s Rapunzel is not a bad show; it has some interesting puppets and O’Connor is clearly a talented artist, as is Lauren Fortuna, her assistant on this show. They both interacted with the puppets and the audience in interesting ways, and integrated direct presentation to the audience with interaction through the puppets. The show is perfectly fine, and certainly many people got a lot out of it. But it did not offer much in the way of ideas, and as a result did not grasp my attention. I thought the show simply lacked the kind of creativity that leads to surprising choices and delightful insights. Without that creativity, it is not much more than a mildly amusing and distracting way to introduce children to puppets; the real leaps of the imagination will have to happen somewhere else. Hopefully some of the children will have left having found enough inspiration to do that themselves.

~Willie Repoley

04 March 2007

by Jim Cavener, Take5 Correspondent
published February 23, 2007 12:15 am

The cast and crew of North Carolina Stage Company’s “All in the Timing” take the show’s title to heart. This is one of the most deftly directed and best-timed comedies seen in a long time. “All in The Timing” is an unconventional evening of theater. Not just edgy and in your face, this is truly fascinating theater, in concept and structure, exquisitely executed.

Director Ron Bashford has assembled the ensemble of the year: Neela Munoz, Rebecca Morris, Chris Allison and the astonishingly versatile Charlie Flynn McIver. They take on author David Ives’ intriguing work with a vengeance. The show features six short pieces, each totally separate from the others, each riveting in its construct.

The opening piece is called “Sure Thing” and well uses the talents of Chris Allison and Rebecca Morris. It’s a word game with some of the most rapid repartee heard in these parts in a long while.

“Words, Words, Words” is set in a science lab where three chimpanzees work on three typewriters, to prove that given enough time, they will eventually write “Hamlet.” McIver and Munoz dazzle with their inspired mock-monkey movement and facial expressions.

“Universal Language” is a take-off from Esperanto, but with a twist. The old language, English, is called “John Cleese,” named for the “Monty Python” star, to give you a clue of the loony twists. There’s a message here, and each viewer may come out with a different one.

“Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread” is as surrealistic as the other bits, and it helps to know the repetitive musical tones of the 20th century composer mentioned in the title. The vocal tones and the cleverly choreographed movement show the stunning skills of this ensemble cast.

“The Philadelphia” is about as obscure and intellectually challenging as any of this lot. You have to see it to attempt to understand it. The restaurant menu starts off with cream of kidney soup, and goes downhill from there. But Morris and Allison shine, and McIver is awesome. As always.

“Variations on the Death of Trotsky” closes this series of romps. It happens in the suburbs of Mexico City in 1940, on the day Leon Trotsky dies. McIver does Trotsky with Munoz as his wife. The Russian accents are a hoot and the frequent death scenes can be taken many ways. Munoz’ twisted face almost stops the show.

Jim Cavener reviews theater for Take5. E-mail JimCavener@aya.Yale.edu.