“Oleanna” offers a searing look at gender, power and language.
By Naila Francis
When David Mamet‘s “Oleanna” had its off-Broadway premiere in 1992, Keith Baker recalls hearing about the fist fights that broke out in the lobby following the curtain call so enraging was the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s drama about sexual harassment and the use and abuse of power.
Back then, only a year had passed since the controversial Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate hearings.
“This play was a reaction to that,” says Baker, artistic director at Bristol Riverside Theatre, where he has opened the new season with a production of “Oleanna.” “It brought into public things which women had been doing their best to take care of in private somehow. The climate in which this play was first performed was electric.”
Twenty years later, it doesn’t take topical relevance to make staging the dangerous war of words between a college professor and his female student an incendiary night of theater.
“It’s an explosive subject,” says Baker, who is directing the first Mamet work to be mounted on the BRT stage. “It’s not entertaining in the standard way. It’s entertaining because it’s riveting and because the writing is so good and the situation is so incredible.”
Yet given Mamet’s penchant for the unflinchingly coarse and provocative, the play also is a risk for BRT’s traditional audiences. This Baker acknowledges. But if considered among scorching works such as “Glengarry Glen Ross” — which earned Mamet his Pulitzer and in Baker’s opinion is his best play — and “American Buffalo,” “Oleanna,” he says, is a more accessible, if still unusual, choice.
“It’s not quite as verbally violent as some of the others. There are just not so many four-lettered words. There are three in the play, and a very harsh one at the end, which we’ve never used on this stage before. But it’s funny when you hear it and it couldn’t be anything else,” says Baker. “It’s a play about a subject that is very much still with us in a much more expanded form than it was in 1992. It’s pertinent to our gender relationships now and how political correctness has influenced our lives.”
The two-person play stars David Barlow as John, a professor approaching a tenure confirmation and buying a house with his wife who agrees to privately help a student, portrayed by Blair Baker, who is failing his class. Yet when his gestures — closing the door when they meet, patting her on the back to comfort her — lead to accusations of sexual harassment, what follows isn’t a clear-cut case of wrong versus right.
“To me, sexual harassment may be the circumstances, but really, what this play is dealing with is people in positions of power and what they do when they have that power. Who do they become and how do they behave?” says Barlow. “It deals with sexual harassment in such a compelling way because it leaves so much unresolved and it’s not thrusting a message down your throat. It’s bringing the inherent complexities of human behavior to the forefront.”
For Baker, it was important that the play, which Mamet adapted into a film in 1994, not feel didactic.
“It’s not at all about two positions that are sort of fighting each other. It’s about two people who find themselves in a difficult situation,” he says. “It’s interesting to say who is the villain in this piece. It’s been my effort to create a kind of seesaw effect in which your loyalties keep moving about. You see this point of view and then there’s that … Nothing is thoroughly black or white. You agree with both of them partially, sometimes often but not always.”
For Blair Baker, those constantly shifting perspectives and allegiances are part of what makes the play so exhilarating. The actor served as understudy for the role of Carol, the student whose feelings of stupidity seem to fuel her vengefulness, for both the Mark Taper Forum production in Los Angeles, starring Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman, and its transfer to Broadway in 2009.
“It’s really important to me that she’s not just crazy Carol, that she’s justified in what her feelings are toward the situation and toward John,” says Blair. “I think she’s really struggling to understand and be understood. I also really feel like she believes that she’s helping the future of the university and her future and needs to do what she is doing throughout the play.”
According to Barlow, both roles are steeped in contradictions and complexity.
“(John) really does deeply love and deeply care about his job and about his students, but he also has a massively inflated ego … even when he is talking about the perils of that in other people,” he says. “I love that he is a man of obsessions and a man who is on a crusade. He has radical elements in his personality and all of that is combined with a man who is deeply in need of security and being accepted by the status-quo establishment that he’s shaking his fist at.”
Of course to inhabit a Mamet character is to master his highly stylized use of language, known in acting circles as “Mametspeak.” That signature attention to fragmented, halting and frequently interrupted patterns of speech can initially intimidate.
“It’s his own brand of poetry. It has the cadence and the feel for ordinary speech — but it’s not,” says Barlow. “It’s very precise and it requires real dexterity and these particular characters are so verbose that I knew right off the bat that the memorization alone was going to be an effort and one well worth it.”
According to Blair, who has trained with the Atlantic Theater Company founded by Mamet and William H. Macy, it is the power of language, and its limits, that propels the claustrophobic, high-stakes action onstage, especially as the characters’ abilities to articulate shift drastically from Act I to Act III.
“A Mamet play is a play, but it’s also a sporting event,” says Keith Baker. “All his plays become boxing rings in which people are battling out ideas in visceral, physical ways, which makes for a very exciting night in the theater.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer