Oleanna in St. Louis
Hydeware Theatre, one of St. Louis’ newest companies, approached the play from these popular conceptions, and yet avoided creating another rendering of Oleanna meant to lead to a panel discussion of gender politics.
By David Mamet
Hydeware Theatre, Berserker Studios, St. Louis.
2 June 2002.
In the ten years since its original production, David Mamet’s Oleanna has continued to challenge and disturb its audiences. While the author persists in his claims that Oleanna centers on the concept of academia as a utopia, critics and audiences continue to use the play as a starting point for discussions of sexual harassment, political correctness, and contemporary gender relationships. Hydeware Theatre, one of St. Louis’ newest companies, approached the play from these popular conceptions, and yet avoided creating another rendering of Oleanna meant to lead to a panel discussion of gender politics. Director Richard Strelinger and his cast and crew presented a unique vision of the play that recognized its political dynamics without allowing these issues to dominate the production.
I must admit that I was concerned when informed that seating was segregated by gender: men sat on one side of the stage, women on the other. In a more traditional theatre, such an arrangement may well have seemed a gimmick, but in the intimate space of St. Louis’ Berserker Studios, where the other side of the stage was, at most, ten feet away, I could not help but take note of the reactions of women facing me and integrate them into my experience of the play’s action. The arrangement of the performance space was even more interesting for the intimacy created with the play’s characters John and Carol. Literally no separation existed between actors and audience: I had to move my feet once or twice to avoid tripping an actor. The literal lack of distance from the actors also challenged the audience’s ability to distance itself emotionally. While reviews of early productions of Oleanna note the cheers and curses that spectators offered at the play’s final descent into violence, the audience for this production sat in tense silence as John attacked Carol.
While Strelinger and company’s use of space proved highly successful, it also created a risk, as spectators were able to observe the actors very closely. Cast members Brian Hyde and Ember Hyde met this challenge admirably. Brian’s John at times seemed drawn from William H. Macy’s film performance of this character, but he succeeded in creating a unique vision of the troubled professor, even eliciting laughter from the audience at very appropriate points in the first act. Ember’s portrayal of Carol was spirited and intense. While she demonstrated mastery of Mamet’s dialogue, the real strength of her performance came from her physical presence, deftly using facial expressions and body language to communicate Carol’s frustration and anger. The two actors also interacted well, following Mamet’s cues for overlapping dialogue in a practiced, professional manner.
Perhaps the truly unique aspect of this production was its set, drawing on conventions commonly associated with film noir. For most of the production, the only lighting came from two fluorescent lights above the performance space. This soft lighting, along with minimal props (a desk, two chairs, and a makeshift bookshelf), created a feeling much more like the office of Sam Spade than the genteel academic environment created in Mamet’s film version of the play. The actors’ costumes enhanced this effect, with both characters clad primarily in black and white. While critics have often noted Mamet’s debt to noir in films like House of Games and Homicide, Strelinger, along with stage manager Traci Eichhorst and lighting designer Pamela Banning, cleverly connected Oleanna’s sexual tension and quest for certainty with the writer’s more obvious forays into mystery and darkness.
Overall, the success of Hydeware’s production of Oleanna grew from this young company’s sense of purpose, which, in part, is to “stage plays that offer a fresh, new perspective: on life and on the way theatre is experienced.” While a spectator might quibble, noting that Oleanna is one of Mamet’s most performed plays in recent years. Strelinger and company “offer(ed) a fresh, new~ perspective” on a play that, in a relatively short amount of time, has had its edge removed through productions that focus strictly on notions of political correctness within the academy Ignoring the political implications of Oleanna seems almost foolhardy, though, despite Mamet's claims of the play’s apoliticism. Hydeware managed to balance themes of gender relations and power with Oleanna’s more intrinsically dramatic elements to create a powerful, thoughtful, and heartfelt rendering of this challenging theatrical work.