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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Boston Marriage: A Wilde Mamet Party to Pass the Time (You Vile Cow)

rebecca northan, julie orton, daniela vlaskalic
photo by joel charlebois.
I have a secret to share with you all. There is a secret play at a secret place which is presented by some of this country’s finest theatre actors, directed by one equally distinguished Canadian artist and presented in the quaint ambiance of a salon.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this tradition, the salon began in Italy in the 16th Century, but really flourished in France during the 17th and 18th Centuries. The conceit of these evenings was a gathering of minds, within the society of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge through conversation. Often the guests would gather to watch or to participate in a literary, musical or theatrical exploit, which emerged organically out of the conversation and then, once the performance aspect of the evening was finished, the guests would fluidly continue to speak, philosophize and ruminate on what they had seen, or take in topics altogether different with one another and with their host.
It was in this way that I came upon a secret place (one that was revealed to me only after I booked my ticket) and sat in a lovely, and surprisingly theatrical space, on a rocking chair in fact, drinking ginger ale (there was also wine, you’re encouraged to bring your own) and eating pretzels, while chatting with a handful of guests, mingling with the three actors who were going to be performing for us, and feeling a real sense of society that I don’t think we really ever feel anymore, except at house parties, where we are actually encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers and to really connect with one another and discuss the experience that we are having in the moment we are having it.
The play that we were treated to was David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, a bit of an obscure little gem which was originally produced by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1999. The show is set at the turn of the twentieth century and focuses on the relationship between Claire and Anna, two unwed women nearing forty who are engaged in a relationship which is extremely close and suggests, especially in this production, that their bond may have been a physical as well as an emotional one. Mamet has constructed this play in a delightful way in that it is a classic comedy of manners, with all the Victorian conventions of the well-made play, yet wryly being used ironically so that the end result is sort of what one would expect if David Mamet were to write an Oscar Wilde play about women. The characters speak in language so witty and so verbose that one could only wish to be so deftly eloquent, and even in Victorian England I think one would need to walk with thesaurus promptly in hand at all times in order to be quite so loquaciously grandiloquent. Mamet seems to have written the play, not unlike Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, on two planes, the surface, on which our characters have constructed their carefully molded facades, and the subtext, out of which we can see aspects of pure emotion, and also are given enough intellectual stimulation to delve deeply into issues of gender, colonialism and post-modernity. It is a dense little play, which still has manages to keep the delights and joyfulness of a frothy one.
Rebecca Northan plays Anna, who has the biggest penchant for rambling and extreme bouts of emotion, and of course, she plays this part with wicked, smart, wild abandon of hilarity. Her complete dismissal of her maid, Catherine, is a running gag in the play, and Northan infuses Anna with so much haughtiness, she regards the girl as barely being human, but her fierce comic timing keeps these moments from being as cruel as reality would have them. Indeed, Anna is not very nice at all, but Northan endears her to us through comedy and then manages to twist the entire play around as the slight revelations of her truth manage to peak out of her veneer. As such, she can elicit pathos and laughter at the same time, which I think is the measure of a brilliant comic actor. Daniela Vlaskalic plays Claire, a high strung woman hoping to seduce a much younger girl and needing desperately for Anna to help her in her pursuits. Vlaskalic’s Claire has perfect rapport with Northan’s Anna. It’s immediately clear that these two women know exactly how to push each other’s buttons, and thrive on doing so, and while Northan goes on endless tirades, it’s often Vlaskalic, cutting through her, that packs the most powerful comedic punch. She also has an amazing awful Scottish brogue that she employs condescendingly with the maid which is such fun and the way that she uses Mamet’s language, as though perpetually scandalized, yet mischievously delighted by every consonant that she speaks, makes for a delicious performance. Julie Orton plays the much put-upon Scottish maid, as sharp in her naiveté as Claire and Anna are in their wit, which makes perfect opportunity for word play, double entendre and downright silliness. I particularly enjoy the slight smile that Orton’s maid sometimes has, which betrays her sense that Claire and Anna are kind of bonkers, and aligns her nicely with the audience, who likely has the same impression.
I was struck by how economical Ted Dykstra’s direction of the play was, as far as movement is concerned, in that, the characters only move when there is a clear obligation for them to do so. This creates a nice sense of the languid atmosphere that women of this class would have enjoyed at this time in history, yet also emphasizes how stagnant a body can be, while the mind and the tongue are incessantly in motion. Dykstra also manages to find a steady balance for the surface and more comical side of the play to thrive, while the subtext offers the audience something of more substance to latch onto, without allowing one to undercut the other.
I share this secret play with you in hopes that you will succumb to the curiosity of the sex (either one) and check it out for yourselves. It is a treat.  
Boston Marriage plays Thursday January 27th 2011 to Saturday January 29th 2011. Doors at 7:30pm SHARP. For more information- visit this top secret website. I would book early and fast because there are only thirty seats each night and they have been selling out like hotcakes on a banana boat.

Glengarry’s Men are the Ones to Sell (Reposted)*

eric peterson and albert schultz
There are few plays the capture the essence of desperation quite like Glengarry Glen Ross. David Mamet is a genius at expressing the richest of human emotions in the simplest, most spare and concise bit of vernacular poetry. As David Storch (director of the remount of the critically acclaimed production from last Spring,  currently playing at Soulpepper Theatre until June 5th, 2010) observes in the programme notes, “Mamet mined all the issues of that terrible recession in the early eighties and the desperation and frustration of that era has come full circle.” It is a perfect choice for Soulpepper to produce this play (about real estate agents clawing their way to the top of the board) now because its themes are entirely relevant to the world we live in, but the play is so captivating and sharp and saturated with power, greed and testosterone that it refuses to allow us to wallow in our own despair- the pace is so quick, if your mind wanders for a moment you’re screwed!
The man sitting next to me in the theatre was a huge Glengarry Glen Ross fan and he kept providing extra insight for the woman he was with, which I happily soaked up as well. He described the interactions between the characters as, “two fencers exchanging light taps.” The language is so succinct that it must be delivered with the utmost precision and proficiency. There’s no fucking with Mamet, so to speak. Of course, Soulpepper is home to some of this country’s most proficient actors, and this production is definitely no exception.
The two most mesmerizingly brilliant performances in this show were that of Eric Peterson as Shelly Levene and Albert Schultz as Richard Roma. Peterson’s vocal rhythm from the moment he opened his mouth in the first scene until the curtain call was breathtaking in its ability to sound so poetic and yet so natural simultaneously. He elicited empathy from the audience so subtly, it was almost sly, and saturated every word he said with such context without being at all didactic or drawing any attention to it. In all, it was such a concisely perfect performance, that in hindsight I find myself so aware of how finely crafted Mr. Peterson’s art is. I stand in awe of him. Albert Schultz was a perfect complement to Peterson, which made the scene they shared like watching a really fantastic tennis match. Schultz played Richard Roma as the essence of the crooked salesman, with his seedy underbelly exposed, continually changing his tactics and building the momentum and intensity for the audience. Like Peterson, his art is so finely tuned; it is impossible not to admire that kind of skill. In both cases, they are two performances that I feel very fortunate to have seen.
Jordan Pettle is also particularly outstanding as John Williamson, the young office manager who the real estate agents despise. He has a quiet smugness and continually keeps his cool amid the ongoing chaos. Pettle masters Williamson’s subtlety magnificently.
As I exited the theatre I heard impressed audience members commenting on the production and the words that continually cropped up were “crisp,” “quick” and “fast paced.” The Intermission snuck up on the entire theatre, and everything flew by in a whirling blur of captivating exchanges, yelling, and profanity. This is all thanks to David Storch’s clean and sharp direction, which was as succinct and precise as the playwriting and the acting.
This is a play that I think even people who maintain that they don’t enjoy live theatre will like. It has all the features of a really well-made television program, with three times the intensity, adrenaline, and urgency. You can’t fake Mamet, which makes it even more apparent that the great men working at Soulpepper Theatre are indeed the real deal. Glengarry Glen Ross runs until June 5th, 2010, for tickets and more information, please visit their website at http://www.soulpepper.ca/ or call 866-8666.
*This review has been reposted from the article written about the same production in April, 2009.

Glengarry Glentastic!

Soulpepper’s Production of Glengarry Glen Ross has proved so popular that Albert Schultz has announced that it will be extended to May 16th. You can read a review I wrote about the show here. You should also check out Soulpepper’s website, not only to book your tickets to the show, but also to check out the new, fun, full-length photos of the Founding Members and the Actors in the Company this season. They are snappy!