Oleanna makes some revealing choices

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By David Mamet. Presented by Bleeding Heart Theatre and Xua Xua Productions. At the Havana Theatre on Friday, May 9. Continues until May 17

Artists who interpret David Mamet’s Oleanna have to make approximately five trillion decisions. Some of this company’s choices are revealing, but others seriously reduce the play’s complexity.

In Oleanna, an undergraduate named Carol meets with John, her professor, in his office. She’s failing his course and admits to feeling stupid. Initially distracted by phone calls about a house purchase, John finally pays attention long enough to console Carol. That consolation involves a touch. In the next scene, we find out that John has been denied tenure because Carol has filed a complaint in which she alleges sexual harassment.

Oleanna has been pushing people’s buttons since it premiered in 1992. Some call the play sexist, claiming that Mamet makes Carol a feminist harpy in the play’s second and third scenes. Others agree with that assessment, but direct their fury at Carol rather than Mamet, cheering John on as his response to his student becomes increasingly violent.

To me, Oleanna is a lot more complicated than these two sides would allow. I think it’s primarily about language—its power, its limitations, and who controls it. John is a narcissistic liberal who talks about privilege, but doesn’t really understand how he abuses his own. In the play’s first scene, John’s world-view and its vocabulary dominate. Then Carol discovers her “group”, other women disadvantaged in academia, who provide her with a new conceptual framework—which she proceeds to abuse.

The greatest strength of this production is Susie Coodin’s performance as Carol. Coodin’s Carol is always actively struggling with the gap between her underlying sense of the truth and her ability to articulate it and act on it. Carol’s desire to resolve the dissonance helps to explain her decision to keep meeting privately with John even after she has accused him.

And when Carol describes the sacrifices that women like her make to get a higher education, Coodin’s voice chokes. The actor’s emotionality focuses attention on a troubling strand in the script. What has Carol done? Why does she repeatedly refer to herself as bad? And, at the end of the script, after John has knocked her to the floor and called her a cunt, why does she reply, “Yes. That’s right…yes. That’s right”? Has Carol deliberately provoked John’s rage? If so, what are the implications of that?

On the downside, director Evan Frayne’s production doesn’t explore the possibility that John might be sexually interested in Carol. That choice is a huge error: it weights the dialectic heavily in John’s favour and flattens the play.

Although actor Anthony F. Ingram makes sense of John’s halting, convoluted speeches, which is no easy task, and he finds an emotional through line, he doesn’t bring a lot of nuance to the role. Ingram inhabits John’s pomposity, but he largely ignores the character’s huge potential to be charming, manipulative—and vicious.

There’s a lot to chew on in this Oleanna. But there could a lot more.

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