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
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter
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.