Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rambling Thoughts on 'Oleanna,' the Alchemist's Canceled David Mamet Production

By Russ Bickerstaff
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A Word About This Review:

I was one of the lucky few to have seen the Alchemist Theatre’s production of Oleanna prior to the cease and desist letter from David Mamet’s lawyers that shut the production down after only one performance.

What follows is the review as it had been original review as it had been written and submitted well over twelve hours prior to the official announcement that the show had been shut down due to Mamet’s evident concern over the casting of two men in the show meant for one man and one woman. Some of what I said may seem kind of strange in retrospect.

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Theater in Milwaukee this summer heats-up with Alchemist Theatre’s production of the 1992 David Mamet drama Oleanna. A college student has difficulty in class. When the student stays after class to try to address a failing grade with a professor, things get complicated. Soon the professor’s tenure is jeopardized. Things get worse from there.

My own personal experience with Mamet is kind of strange. My father told me a story of briefly meeting the man while he was with the Goodman Theatre. The story sounded interesting so I ended up reading a lot of Mamet in high school. I absolutely fell in love with Edmond. Years later I was watching the film version of the play on DVD and listening to Mamet’s running commentary track. I was kind of disgusted by Mamet’s original intent with the story—not at all what I’d come to love about it. I still think mine is a much better interpretation of the script than the one that the playwright had. So I’m disappointed in Mamet. And as a result, I’d like to think that he would hate the Alchemist Theatre’s production of Oleanna. Mamet’s kind of a jerk. This is a production which reframes his original drama in a way that’s far more interesting than he’s allowing it to be as a playwright.

The cast is really well-modulated. David Sapiro plays the professor—a guy named John. Ben Parman plays the student—a woman named Carol. So it’s two guys onstage playing a man and a woman. And I like to think that Mamet would hate that because I think that it improves on his original intent by defusing some of the biggest distractions in the story. This isn’t what Mamet intended. It’s better than that. When it was originally released, Oleanna was seen by many as being a commentary on sexual harassment. The problem I have with this is that there’s a lot more than just that in the script. It’s making a much bigger and more compelling statement on the nature of authority in general. With the drama manifesting itself between two guys, the sexual harassment end of the drama becomes a minor detail. This allows the more interesting bits of the drama to become the central focus.

Sexual harassment is far too pervasive and far too important an issue for David Mamet to handle. He’s a bright guy, he’s just not terribly good at addressing sexual harassment. His treatment of the character of Carol seems a bit misogynistic. She’s weak and she’s uncertain of herself and then she’s cold and vindictive. It’s not a particularly nice portrayal. And while it’s true that there are people of EVERY conceivable gender who are weak who later become vindictive, having a woman like that in this particular story works against it. Framing that in the context of an exploration about the nature of sexual harassment makes the playwright come across as . . . kind of a jerk. So the sexual harassment end of the play is interesting and everything, but it isn’t anywhere near as interesting as what Mamet is addressing with respect to the nature of authority. Casting  two men in the opposing roles directs the spotlight to the drama’s strengths.

Lest I be misunderstood, I ‘m not saying that sexual harassment and assault can’t happen between men. With two men in the roles, however, the sexuality of the characters is downplayed. The casting here is kind of interesting with regard to that. The script isn’t changed from the original. Parman IS still playing a woman. Though there are iconic, little references to that visually, he’s not specifically playing the role in an exaggerated drag outfit. There’s no exaggerated femininity. It’s very casual costuming. As student, he towers over Sapiro in the role of the professor. He’s clearly not the stereotype of vulnerability that Mamet’s script might seem to be reaching for. Though there definitely is a sexual component to the script, it’s nice to see the rest of the story become the central focus.

David Sapiro manages very delicate character work with the professor.  There’s a really powerful sense of arrogance permeating the role. Thanks to Sapiro’s work with the character, we see some of where that arrogance comes from. He’s not some flat stereotype of a pompous intellectual elite. There’s a real danger in him coming across like that in the script. Sapiro delivers the character’s fascination with the subject matter of education with the kind of intensity that serves as a solid foundation for his arrogance. It’s a clever performance.

A good portion of Ben Parman’s job is simply coming across as compassionately misunderstanding the basic relationship being outlined in the drama. It’s established right away that Carol is actually quite intelligent. She’s in a stressful situation and she doesn’t understand things, so she might easily be characterized as being a bit intellectually challenged. Just as the professor might come across as being flatly arrogant, Carol might come across as being dim-witted. Thanks to Parman’s careful performance, she’s not. She’s come to the university to learn and one of those she’s learning from is questioning the value of a university education. She’s upset. Things get ugly. Thanks to the work of Parman and Sapiro under the direction of Erin Nicole Eggers, it’s a fascinating kind of ugly.

The Alchemist Theatre’s production of Oleanna runs through July 12 at the Alchemist on  2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations and other information, visit the Alchemist online.

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