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Oleanna in Las Vegas

Review of The Actors Repertory Theatre production of Oleanna in Las Vegas, put in the context of Legal Discourse and discussion by an attorney.


By David Mamet.

Actors Repertory Theatre, Las Vegas.

25 January 2002.


    Rarely does the price of a theatre ticket include a meeting with an attorney. David Mamet’s Oleanna is so controversial, however, that a recent production in Las Vegas invited its Saturday night audiences to attend post-show discussions about the drama’s legalities. Viewing the play persuaded me that what seemed a gimmick was a good idea. The Actors Repertory Theatre provided a faithful and thought-provoking version of Oleanna—a play that asks us to define sexual harassment and consider the legal obligations of power.

The structure of Oleanna is simple; the entire play consists of a seventy-minute, three-act conversation between a college professor and a female student. With only one set (the professor’s office) and two actors, the play is a gem for small-budget theatres. The uncomplicated foundation, however, makes for a complex experience. In act one, the audience witnesses a tense and frustrating exchange between Carol (the student and John (the professor). Carol wishes to consult the professor about her grade. Despite her sincere efforts, she remains confused about course material. She appears intimidated, inarticulate and inconsequential on the student’s side of the desk. Proud and self-absorbed, John struts as the play begins. The university has recently approved his tenure, and frantic phone calls from his wife and his realtor continually interrupt the scene because he is purchasing a house to “go with the tenure.” Despite his preoccupation, John asks Carol to stay and discuss her grade but we wonder, as does Carol, if the invitation is motivated by sincere concern for her academic success or out of unbelievable arrogance. At the end of act one, John feels that things have gone well; he tells a joke, assuages Carol with a personal anecdote, and offers to tutor her into an “A.” He expects Carol to return for future consultation, oblivious to her feelings of betrayal.

Act two reveals that Carol has filed charges against John with the tenure committee, alleging sexual harassment and abused power. Although the indictment dumbfounds John, it contains no falsehoods. Audience members must reconsider what really took place in the first act, and interpret the numerous verbal ironies. Is saying “I like you” or placing a hand on someone’s shoulder an act of aggression or an act of kindness? The play becomes a “he said, she said,’ with a twist—the audience witnesses the incident in question and so is complicit. Mamet skillfully weaves the threads of authority, sexuality, and communication into a tapestry so dense that it is not until the powerful third act that we realize what we should have been known from the start: this is a play about achieving and keeping power.

Director Robert Dunkerly illustrates the theme of power in both subtle and commanding ways. For example, Dunkerly elects to make John’s office impressive. A spacious office with an enormous window is unrealistic for most untenured professors, but it establishes John’s position of superiority and how much he has to lose. Another interesting set detail is John’s bookcase, Identical book spines line the set’s most accessible shelf. When John pulls one off the shelf, he reveals that each of the books is a copy of his own work. He evidently adorns his shelves with his own     cations to make certain students recognize his success. The detail demonstrates both John’s arrogance and his insecurity.

The most forcible visuals result from Dunkerly’s stage direction. The text calls for John to “put his arm around (Carol’s) shoulder’ in act one, suggesting an act of compassion. Dunkerly, however, downplays any attempt at tenderness. In his version, when John and Carol touch, it is clearly the result of an accident. John is standing too close when Carol turns around; the consequence is a startling brush, not a caress. Dunkerly’s decision works in some interesting ways. John’s case becomes much more sympathetic with the overt “arm around the shoulder” omitted. Dunkerly takes other liberties as well. Throughout the play, Carol and John slowly shift their physical positions. When the play opens, Carol is hunched over in a small, uncomfortable chair on the opposite side of John’s impressive desk. It is immediately clear who the teacher is and where the power lies. As Carol becomes increasingly commanding, a transition begins to take place. After numerous choreographed quarrels, the play ends with Carol looming behind the desk and John hunched over in the chair. John now receives the lesson. This staging contradicts Mamet’s text; in the author’s version, John returns to his desk and organizes papers while Carol lies beaten on the floor, Yet Dunkerly’s staging increases audience sympathy for John, a decision with which many directors would disagree.

Applause was mixed with murmurs when Brian Strom and Coryn Caspar took their curtain calls. Despite decent performances by the actors, the audience could focus on only one issue: which character was ‘right”? To my surprise, I wish I had attended the play on a Saturday night for the post-show legal discussion. For once, Las Vegas had a decent two-for-one special.