While many production companies make the mistake of using Oleanna as a forum solely for the discussion of sexual harassment, the Detroit Repertory Theatre chose to avoid even a program note in their playbill on the meaning or issues explored in the play. Their performance did not provoke split in opinion down gender lines as has been the case with their productions.
By David Mamet
Detroit Repertory Theatrc, Detroit. 5 April 1996
While many production companies make the mistake of using Oleanna as a forum solely for the discussion of sexual harassment, the Detroit Repertory Theatre chose to avoid even a program note in their playbill on the meaning or issues explored in the play. Their performance did not provoke split in opinion down gender lines as has been the case with their productions. Comments overhead in the lobby after the show from both female and male members of the audience centered on the fact that they had seen no sign of deliberate sexual harassment or even sexual innuendo on John's part. One woman mentioned that the play demonstrated her belief that students had too much control over teachers today. In agreement, a man replied that political correctness would be the death of education and free speech.
Members of the audience, with few exceptions, applauded John's final attack on Carol. It was the applause of spectators schooled in a theatre where villains are punished in the end; some may have felt that Carol deserved punishment for her actions, while others may have settled for the uncritical position that Carol was villain simply because she was the one punished through violence in the end. Either explanation was reinforced by director Bruce Millan's choice to create a confrontational Carol who, from her first meeting with John, physically reacted to each her professor's suggestions with barely contained anger. Shouts, not whispers, characterized her verbal inquiries. Millan also staged all physical contact between professor and student as blatantly innocent encounters. Yet these factors made the audience's approval of John's attack even more troubling because the applause affirmed the very system of authority the play questions.
Director Millan's blocking effectively captured a transfer of power from John to Carol. As the pressures on John mounted, for instance, Millan placed him deeper and deeper in the chair behind his desk, leaving him immobile and seemingly impotent. One of the strongest stage pictures of the production came in the third act as Carol told John the position of her unseen group of advisors. Millan staged the scene so that Carol used the computer monitor on the upstage side of John's desk as a podium while John cowered in his seat below, resembling a defendant in a criminal trial. Carol placed her ever present notebook on the monitor and, like an aggressive trial lawyer, launched her attack.
Harry Wetzel and Chris Ann Voudoukis performed with an exciting combination of energy and intensity. Wetzel embodied the pompous overblown young faculty member both physical and vocally; his John was noticeably caught up in the pleasurable act of listening to his own theories. From the start, Voudoukis presented Carol as neither passive nor painfully shy. Her Carol was an actively frustrated student unable to articulate her thoughts. Early on, Voudoukis provided glimpses of the type of person Carol would later become. She listened intently to John's opening phone call, for example, hoping for some clue as to how she might get something from the professor; she immediately questioned him after the call. Voudoukis let the tone of Wetzel's condescending response push Carol forward to further questioning. This exchange suggested a woman frustrated not only by her inability to understand John's pedantic language but by her inability to communicate effectively. Each half uttered phrase arrived with an equivalent physical sign of mounting internal tension. Voudoukis and Wetzel created a mental wrestling match through their wonderfully executed give and take. The only weakness in their performances was a tendency to plow over the pauses inherent in Mamet's dialogue. As intensity soared, the pair found it hard to wait for the pauses so vital to the script's rhythm. Yet this tendency did not detract from the quality of their overall performance.
The set design by Richard Smith and Millan portrayed the professor's office in vivid naturalistic detail, from the green tile floors to the piles of blue books waiting to be graded. Files and papers were stacked on the desk in a neat, orderly fashion. Behind the desk was a bulletin board full of carefully placed academic announcements. Selected art and music posters adorn the walls. This carefully detailed office remained impersonal, tidy, and unaltered throughout John and Carol's increasingly troubled interaction. Smith and Millan, then, missed a striking opportunity to alter aspects of John's office when its primary occupant 'transforms' from an over-confident professor to an unemployed, shattered adult.
SONYA Y. ALVARADO
Wayne State University