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Oleanna at Missouri Rep.

The Missouri Repertory Theatre staged the play in January, 1997, where the play still resonates with relevant issues.

By David Mamet
Missouri Repertory Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri
24 January 1997

Oleanna hit a sore-spot in 1992. The Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill confrontation was fresh in our public mind. Political correctness as a mode of conduct was gaining speed and power like a boulder rolling downhill. The reviews of the original production ranged from kudos for addressing this touchy subject to accusations that Mamet was only riding on the politically correct wagon. Five years later, Thomas is firmly entrenched in his position as Supreme Court Justice. Anita Hill appears in print occasionally on the topic of harassment, and p.c. speak is often delivered with the tongue planted firmly in the cheek. Missouri Repertory Theatre staged the play in January, 1997, one might assume after Oleanna’s shelf-life had expired. However, in the case of MRT, the play still resonates with relevant issues. The theater is housed on the campus of University of Missour-Kansas City, and the majority of the opening night audience was faculty, staff, and students. In the university setting, the code of p.c. is still strictly followed.

As John (Gary Neal Johnson) and Carol (Carrie Vujcec) faced off, they were reenacting a scene familiar to the audience. The professor, consumed by the politics and achievements of life in the Ivory Tower, is willing to magnanimously give a moment or two to the needy student. The student, frustrated by the newly encountered language of academia, is overwhelmed by her inability to see the point and unwilling to invest something of herself into finding that point.

What begins as a display of condescension on John’s part and plaintive whining on Carol’s gains dramatic tension as Carol returns to John’s office in the second act with a new-found vocabulary from her “group” and a list of charges that she has brought before the tenure committee, including elitism, harassment, and sexism. Fontaine Syer, the director of this production, moved the players around the stage like chess pieces vying for advantage or boxers positioning for attack. The physical maneuvering reflected the sharp, verbal rhythm of the play. As the situation spun out of control and the power structure shifted, Syer’s subtle direction revealed the academic office to be a cage in which predator and prey were trapped.

In a perfectly balanced production of Oleanna it should be unclear as to who exactly is the predator and who exactly is the prey. However, in this production, along with many others, it seems that John is perceived as not deserving of his fate. At the onset, the worst the professor can be accused of is self-involvement and pomposity, hardly crimes punishable by utter devastation. John is not reprehensible until he reveals himself to be that which Carol has accused him of being. On opening night at MRT, there were reports of audience members cheering under their breath as Carol was beaten. Having seen this play before, I cannot blame this particular production, but rather Mamet’s oversimplification of a complicated situation. Carol’s hazy motivation for her actions leaves the audience unable to sympathize with her. Her cries of wanting to be understood have a hollow ring when there is no insight into who exactly she is.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this production was to be found in the set and sound designs. Harry Feiner’s set provided the obligatory desk and two chairs. The walls surrounding the furniture were windows with an iridescent sheen that looked remarkably like video monitors. While the actors changed during act breaks, masked only partly by the windows, the audience fell victim to an aural assault. Tom Mardikes’s sound design was a collage of sound bytes and other media-like noises. The distorted and confusing noises reinforced the muddled communication taking place on stage as well as our own vulnerability to the barrage of conflicting information and messages we receive on a daily basis.

Linda Meyers’s costume design put John in standard professorial dress with an air of general disarray progressing throughout the action of the play. Carol’s first appearance was in unremarkable collegiate dress and despite the fact that she donned a tailored blazer, her appearance also became quite disheveled. The overall effect was not of a young woman with newly found confidence, but of a young woman losing control in better fitting clothes.

In order for Oleanna to fully live up to its reputation of being provocative, the audience must be able to examine the issues from both sides. Missouri Repertory Theatre’s production had nearly all of the ingredients for success in this venture. The companies who tackle this play, unfortunately, must enliven Mamet’s characters, who are not complex enough to carry the weight of every “ism” in the book.

University Of Missouri-Kansas City