31 Years Later, Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ Is As Powerful And Divisive As Ever

Perhaps the fact that I find myself genuinely conflicted as I try to assess David Mamet’s Oleanna is actually something of a mark in its favor. After all, as opposed to the many perfunctory crowd-pleasers that do little to challenge convention, this script offers plenty of food for thought, ensuring an intellectually stimulating experience for practically all audience members regardless of what they come away thinking about the work.

Because it also aptly fosters emotional engagement in its portrayed dilemma, I would also say that the show succeeds quite remarkably as a piece of theatre, and as a unique and consummately surprising one. But as the characters discuss, “surprise” is something that can be an aggressive act as easily as a benevolent one, and there’s a definite edge to this script that makes the show at best unappealingly cynical and at worst actively problematic.

However, as long as you take everything onstage with a grain of salt, you’ll likely find Empire Stage’s worthy production of the famed play to be more than fascinating enough to justify its crisp eighty minute runtime. This tight two-hander centers on Carol, a meek college student, and John, the professor to whom she has come for assistance because she is at risk of failing his class.

‘Oleanna’ at Empire Stage

But when John makes what he sees as an innocent gesture and touches Carol, while trying to comfort her, she decides that the act and aspects of their dialogue constituted sexual harassment. And while there is certainly much in that dialogue that indicates that John could have seen the encounter as a precursor to a clearer-cut abuse of power, somewhat justifying Carol’s viewpoint, in the end, it seems that nothing the character does actually crosses a line, as Mamet seemingly intended.

But by taking his words and actions out of context, Carol is able in her complaint to the school board to misrepresent what occurred and twist it into damning evidence and assassinate John’s character. For instance, she notes that “He said he liked me…He told me that he had problems with his wife and that he wanted to take off the artificial structures of teachers and students. He put his arm around me… He told me that if I stayed alone with him in his office that he would give me an A.”

All of these things, empirically, happened; but where the characters can’t agree is on what they meant. In Carol’s eyes, they were an unsettling violation; but as John seems to believe, they were merely an attempt to get through to her and to give her the help she requested, bending a few traditions to do so.

This summation only skims the surface of their dense, nuanced debate. But for all the worthy points raised over the course of their argument and intriguing philosophical territory traversed, I ultimately found Mamet’s landmark drama to have fallen short in its portrayal of Carol as a power-hungry political activist with an ax to grind rather than something more human and understandable. When we meet Carol initially, she seems like a shy girl from an underprivileged background who has found herself out of place at a challenging college—and it’s not so hard to imagine such a girl tragically mistaking a teacher’s motives and filing a complaint out of fear of advances she couldn’t handle.

‘Oleanna’ at Empire Stage

Yet Mamet instead makes the character entirely unsympathetic by implying she is deliberately twisting the truth to further the political agenda of an unnamed “group” as well as out of her own desire for revenge on John for his condescension towards her and for related desire for power over him, seeming as she does to see him as a stand in for the system of education itself. Because of this, I find myself inclined to say that the play paints a dangerously dismissive portrait of female victims of abusive male superiors that leaves little room for genuine understanding.

I’m not saying that false accusations don’t happen, nor that they’re never motivated by unsavory motives of all kinds; but the idea of one being motivated by a complex ideological agenda and propelled by the advice of an unseen “group” takes the play’s story from being about one conniving woman who played the victim for her own gain to representing what would become the Me Too movement as a leftist conspiracy as opposed to a response to a very real issue.

This isn’t my only issue with the play’s writing; I also found myself getting somewhat exhausted by the unceasing use of the elliptical dialogue known as “Mamet speak,” which seemed to obscure what was actually being said and thus to make the play’s complex content harder to grasp.

The fact that neither character is particularly likable also somewhat mutes the play’s impact. It may be that Carol is more clearly the antagonist, but John’s elitism, self-concern, and hypocritical disdain for the system of education that empowers him doesn’t do him any favors either.

‘Oleanna’ at Empire Stage

And anyone who does find themselves firmly rooting for him may  have to reevaluate after a shocking ending that seems to call into question all that has come before. As a theatrical moment, it succeeded splendidly in defying our expectations and provoking a strong reaction; but, in its ambiguity, it only seems to confusingly further muddy the waters rather than to atone for the play’s earlier ideological flaws.

Of course, all of these complaints are to be laid at Mamet’s feet rather than at producer and director

Michael Vadnal’s, who made an admirably bold choice in selecting this controversial script and ensures that the show lives up to its inflammatory potential. The play’s two character cast also is up to the substantial challenge posed by the show and its unconventional dialogue. Though Abbie Fricke perhaps slightly overplays Carol’s initial nervousness, she fared better as the character morphed into a self-assured ideologue in the play’s second two thirds and emerged as a strong and compelling presence. Meanwhile, her co-star Alex Bakalarz is instantly engaging as John, conveying both the character’s seemingly warm persona and his subtler sinister qualities. The two play off each other well, and fight and intimacy director Ayla Maulding also aided the actors in creating some of the play’s most suspenseful physical moments.

Vadnal also served as the show’s costume designer and co-scenic designer with Patrick Vida, and the two together add much texture to the piece. The setting of a refined office in upper echelon academia is obvious and informative, and the subtle transitions in the characters’ wardrobes help illuminate the changes in their mindset or circumstances.

So while I’m not sure that I’d suggest Oleanna as a top pick for someone looking for a balanced take on the issues that it explores, seeing the play is a worthwhile experience for any dedicated theatre-goer willing to take a leap into some pretty dark territory and be rewarded with a thrilling and disturbing story. You’ve got only until this August 20 to check it out at Empire Stage for yourself!

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