Oh Oleanna.

diego matamoros & sarah wilson
photo by bruce zinger
There is a line in David Mamet’s play Oleanna (1992) in which the character of John, a University professor, tells his student that education is about provocation and that in stirring the emotions of his scholars he is inciting their ability to think critically about the material he is presenting. Mamet uses this same philosophy with his theatrical audience, and indeed audiences have been impassioned in their reactions to the work for the last two decades. These debates are continuing into the lobby of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until March 19th as László Marton’s production plays at Soulpepper Theatre.
Mamet was inspired by the prominent confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 after a former employee, Anita Hill, claimed that he had behaved in way that constituted sexual harassment at the workplace. As the hearings were televised, the proceedings sparked an outpouring of diverse opinions concerning feminism and political correctness across the United States. In Oleanna we see three scenes in the office of John, who is solidifying plans for his new house just as he expects to gain tenure at the University whilst dealing with Carol, a failing student requiring extra help. Within this space Mamet constructs an intense environment where, depending on your point of view, an act of sexual harassment or patriarchal abuse of power, either does or does not occur, and using only unflinching, powerful language, Mamet pushes these characters to the very brink of their own sanity and to the limit of language itself.
It has been said that Oleanna has been “ripped straight from the headlines” but I think that rather than seeking to construct an accurate representation of individuals, either based on Thomas and Hill or not, engaged in a plausible power struggle, that Mamet was more interested in dramatizing the national fear of a world obsessed with political correctness and what impact such a world could have both on men in positions of power and also on women who are not. Yet, of course, if the scrutinizing of every casual word, taking seemingly innocuous words and phrases out of context to twist them into something else entirely has the ability to make monsters of us all, where does that leave those who have legitimate claims to misuse of power, sexual harassment, and injustice and inequality based on gender, which is still an overwhelmingly pertinent issue in the world today? What constitutes “legitimate”? Is Carol’s claim against John a “legitimate” one?
Although I think that Oleanna is most concerned with dramatizing political correctness rearing its ugly head, I also think that it has the potential to be less heavy handed in John’s favour than in the production that Marton has staged at Soulpepper. For, if the audience is so overtly led to believe that Carol’s claim is misguided and unfairly vindictive, that she is being used as a puppet by a larger group seeking an influential male to use as a scapegoat to seek vindication for “Feminism,” the reality of the feminist cause, the dream of equality and justice for all persons, is completely lost under the shadow of a wildly exaggerated diplomatic boogeyman. It is very interesting to note that this play has been produced in several acclaimed and prominent productions, directed by Mamet himself, Harold Pinter, Michael Gow and Lindsay Posner, all men; I would be wildly fascinated to see it directed someday by a woman. I hope someday comes soon.
All of this is not to say that László Marton has not given Soulpepper a riveting evening at the theatre with his production and that it does not come with its own intricate set of fascinating choices. As someone who was raised by two generations of fervent feminists, went to a school where I was taught almost exclusively by Second Wave Feminists, and currently finds herself becoming irate watching commercials for laundry detergent, I have been dismayed to see our society settling (or slipping) into shocking complacency regarding all civil rights, but especially concerning gender norms. Perhaps we have been led to believe that “the fight is over,” or that we “won” when the reality is that equality is something that needs constant forward momentum to remain present in our lives. So, in this way, Marton’s more subtle production of Oleanna is actually quite a relevant one. I found John’s behaviour in the first scene reminiscent of experiences that I had during my post secondary education. When I was in Carol’s position, I was not offended; yet, should I have been? Why was I not offended? How is it that as a young feminist, raised and educated by feminists my whole life, Mamet and Marton could present a scenario where a young girl is beaten by her university professor in his office and, rather than feeling outraged, I feel instead a perverse sense of triumph? What twisted rabbit hole have I fallen into and how have these two men been able to construct such a dystopic Wonderland (or Oleanna) that has the power to turn my deeply ingrained values on their heads? Language is powerful as Mamet proves time and time again and it is easy to lose yourself in rhetoric, to be swayed even against your better judgement, and is that what happens to Carol in the play?
Marton has two formidable actors working in Oleanna, who both give powerful, nuanced and commanding performances. Diego Matamoros is charming as John, even likable, despite the fact that he is loquacious and grandiloquent. At the heart of the matter, his intentions initially are simply to help Carol pass his class, to understand the material and he also attempts to connect with her as an individual and to dispel the myth of the sanctity of the college institution. Matamoros is especially brilliant in capturing the rhythms of Mamet’s language when he is fielding endless phone calls from his wife and their real estate agent about closing the deal on their new house. He becomes increasingly dishevelled, desperate and vulnerable as the play progresses and Carol threatens to destroy everything meaningful in his life. Sarah Wilson’s Carol is explosive and unhinged. She begins the play with the ultimate of diffidence, her head awkwardly bowed down with her chin buried into her neck, wording her sentences clumsily in a way that sometimes suggests that even she isn’t entirely sure what she is saying, and reacting to any sort of touch from John as though he sent a strong electric current directly into her nerves. She grows strikingly more confident and articulate as the play progresses, but still often suggests that it is a hollow facade not entirely connected to the deeply wounded human being writhing in frustration deep inside. When they collide, Matamoros and Wilson are just like the metaphorical train wreck, and there is no way the audience can pull itself away.
Rather than dismissing this work as being dated (as some theatre critics have), I think it is far more pertinent for us in 2011 to ask about the third option. If we want a world that is based on equality and justice for all, how do we avoid the diplomatic nightmare that Mamet has presented here without reverting back to the archaic traditions of patriarchy that have enslaved so many for thousands of years? If we’re angry, if provoked, to think, to ask, to form opinions and debate about them, Mamet and Marton have done their jobs, for the scariest nightmare for me would be for an audience to respond to this play with a complacent sense of triumph and satisfaction, or worse, the quiet indifference of submission.
Oleanna plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street Building 49) until March 19, 2011. For more information or to book your tickets please visit http://www.soulpepper.ca or call 416.866.8666.

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