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The Best Oleanna You'll Never See

25 Apr 2014
Posted by Shannon

oleannaoleannaThe Mamet on Main collective's production of Oleanna has turned the controversial two-hander about the clash of power and gender politics into a thrilling three-hander. The audience functions like a subtle Greek chorus in the confines of the Little Mountain Gallery theatre. 

And I'm so sorry you'll never see it. The last show is on Sunday night. Maybe you can bribe someone to hand over his reservation? 

The 50-seat theatre-in-the-round setting puts the audience in that claustrophobic office with the professor and his female student and the show pulls some of its energy from us.

When the vile professor says he loves teaching, you can hear a skeptical chuckle. When the action turns angry, there's a gasp. And throughout the intense 80 minutes you can feel sympathies shifting from teacher-to-student and back again as David Mamet's carefully weighted script reveals fact-after-damning-fact about both characters.


This production made me see the play differently. Director Quelemia Sparrow draws out the nuance in the 22-year-old text, which has a reputation for misogyny. Many (most?) versions pit the feminist student against the male professor and make him the victim of political correctness. That's not what we see here. 

John and Carol are more like a couple of rats in a bag. Vicious, sure. But it's not personal or political; it's their nature. The play becomes less about political fashions than about power and its abuses. The real villains of the piece are the institutions on both sides of the debate that grant some people the power to turn their self-serving whims into law. 

Oleanna is a maddening play in every sense of the word. It can be crazy-making in its cleverness. And it leaves you angry if you're the sort who is inclined to side with either the mistreated student or the wrongly-accused prof. Although that term doesn't quite get at what happens. She isn't wrong to accuse him; she just accuses him of the wrong things. Ironically, it's because she's so poorly educated -- which is his fault -- that she doesn't seem to know what words mean. 


He probably should be nailed for his atrocious teaching style, which actor David Bloom delivers with the just the right dollop of conceit. He spends much of the first act talking over her and cutting off her thoughts, even as he pays lip service to wanting to hear her views. It's the one place in the play where they fall into the Mamet-ian rhythms that I usually find annoying, but are ideal for getting at how frustrating this prof is. 

The script makes it obvious he's a pompous show-off, but in Bloom's portrayal John is also little guy saddled with a big ego and no discernible social skills. When he thinks he has the upper hand he's a preening narcissist forcing his student Carol to play audience as he tells the story of his life's journey to greatness. The way he deliberately confuses her is almost cruel.  But when she turns the tables and engineers his firing he switches, predictably, to sniveling and pleading with her to see him as human being who made a mistake. 


He's a repulsive guy, but not consciously malevolent -- Bloom plays him more as a desperate loser. His actions seem more compulsive than calculated as he warms to his captive audience and becomes ever more physically expansive. He takes up too much space and invades hers as he blathers on. He made my skin crawl more than once as he captured the experience so many women have had -- some guy mansplaining at them to stroke his own ego.  

Is he on the way to stroking something else? That's always the question in real life dramas as well as this play. Is the guy just socially inept or is he predatory? 

Bloom is nicely matched by Pandora Morgan, who is convincing as a young sociopath with a chip on her shoulder. Her Carol makes the transition from anxious undergrad to vindictive activist quietly, in a way that suggests she's just trying to survive.

She's failing, she finds the course material incomprehensible, and the professor deliberately confuses her to reinforce his own power. But Carol is resourceful. She finds some unnamed group that explains that she's a victim, he's an elitist bully, and there is another path to success that doesn't require a good grade from this guy. (Who might -- just might -- be offering that arbitrary A for a lay.) 


On one level the characters are champions sent to joust on behalf of two profoundly unfair organizations. He's backed by the medieval traditions of the university, which turn departments into fiefs and profs into baronets establishing their own rules for the peasantry. Carol has the post-modern crowd on her side. They believe she fits some category of victim and her feelings and accusations alone are proof of his wrongdoing. 

And there's no denying he's creepy. 

What is missing in the dispute is what the legally-minded types call due process. The disinterested court, tribunal, or hearing that provides a forum for testing the accuracy of the evidence in any dispute is absent from Oleanna's world -- and often ours. I think that's really Mamet's point.  The much mentioned tenure committee is a kind of kangaroo court comprised of ass -covering professors more skilled at petty politics than jurisprudence. 

So inevitably, the audience for every production becomes judge and jury.  


After the show, much of the audience hung around to appoint a villain. There's a good case to be made on both sides, but I think this production suggests something that's true to the script:  it's a case of pathologies intersecting. John and Carol's encounter wouldn't escalate in a place with a culture of fairness. 

Mamet seems to be saying that it's the nature of people to be crazy -- and who can disagree with that? -- so the question shouldn't be who is right, but how do we prevent them destroying themselves and others? 

But if the playwright stacks the deck against either of the characters, I think it's the professor. He has education, experience, and authority on his side, which means he has an obligation to treat his vulnerable students with far more respect than he shows. Especially in academia's medieval world, noblesse should oblige. But he treats her like a plaything to indulge his own vanity. As I vaguely recall from my own hazy undergrad days, this sort of thing often leads to La Guillotine. 

John is the one who has every opportunity to prevent this tragedy. The production shows each turning point along the way, making it clear that it's his all-too-human flaws that destroy him. 


For the first time, I appreciated what a smart play Oleanna is, but only in the hands of an equally smart director. I'll be on the lookout for Sparrow's next project. 

"I thought you'd gone off theatre," a pal said, after I sent him the email that became this post, and urged him to snag a seat before the show disappeared. 

I thought I had too. The last time we went to the theatre together, I'd punctuated that piece of cynical commercial crap by looking skyward and saying, "Well, thank god for dance." 

Sensing the zeal of a new convert, he pointed out that the Arts Club is mounting the inexplicably popular Les Miz next season, and suggested we make it a date in honour of the fact we saw it together the first time. 

I remember that evening well. And just like that, I came back to my senses. 

But still, I'm really really sorry you missed this Oleanna.