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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A Beautiful Month in the Country? As You Wish.

jeff lillico and tal gottfried
photo by cylla von tiedemann
While I was at University doing my degrees in theatre studies I was often struck with the way my professors’ eyes would twinkle in a delighted and slightly mischievous way whenever our work was messy. Sometimes as students we would make very clear and expected choices, but the greatest conversations about themes and characters and our insightful inspiration concerning plays and playwrights most often sprung out of our intricate webs of imperfect ideas. László Marton’s production of A Month in the Country, which plays at Soulpepper Theatre until August 7th, 2010, is a perfect example of how making innovative, bold theatrical choices can enrich one’s experience with a particular play and how much fodder for reflection and discussion complex ideas can inspire.
This rendition of A Month in the Country was adapted by Marton with Susan Coyne in a way that modernized certain aspects of the language without changing too many of the play’s details or overtly changing the setting from Russia in the mid 1800s. This is further complicated by Morton’s direction, which almost appears to treat each generation of characters as though they are living in a different decade. The props and costumes span nearly a century and include items from the 1930s to far more modern items, such as a skateboard and a plastic inflatable duck. What I found so interesting about this choice was that while it certainly gave the play a dose of ambiguity, it was not an element that I was fixated upon, nor one that I felt detracted from the actors’ ability to bring this story to life.
A Month in the Country was written by Russian playwright and novelist Ivan Turgenev, and it is reminiscent of the works of Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, although it predates all of Chekhov’s plays and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In 1850 the Russian censor refused to allow the play to be produced in its original form because its protagonist’s behaviour was considered immoral and provocative and Turgenev’s refusal to overtly sermonize on the actions of his characters was seen as being highly controversial. The play was not produced in Russia until 1872 and did not become part of the Russian theatrical canon until it was directed by Constantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1909.
Since by the standards of his own time Turgenev was considered to have modern ideas about love, passion, marriage, women, children and the social codes and conventions that defined Russian life, it seems appropriate that László Marton’s production reflects how the issues confronted in A Month in the Country continue to not only resonate, but resonate controversially across the decades since the 1850s and into our own time. Marton has also managed to liberate this story from the repressed severity that has become associated with a lot of late nineteenth century drama, which can seem dull or alienating to contemporary audiences.
Fiona Byrne plays Natalya Petrovna, a married woman caught between her best friend and platonic lover, Rakitin, and her bourgeoning infatuation with her son’s young tutor, Aleksei Belyaev. The situation becomes disastrous when she realizes that her eighteen year old ward, Vera, is also in love with the tutor and she must decide whether to concede to youth and blissful innocence or use her power and experience in matters of the heart to manipulate the situation in her favour, even if she destroys a young girl’s heart in the process. Byrne, who is stunningly beautiful, plays Natalya with a blithe, natural flirtiness that appears at times almost unintentional. She is coyly manipulative and both wildly passionate and cordially distant depending on whom she is speaking to and Byrne fills her, flaws and all, with so much earnest humanity it is difficult to determine whether she is a heartless villainess or an utterly tragic hero.
David Storch plays Arkady, Natalya’s cuckolded husband, with a nice balance of jovial denial and deeply repressed fear and anger which culminates into a dramatic, yet also oddly humorous, incident involving a bucket filled with water. Diego Matamoros gives a customarily detailed and riveting performance as Rakitin, who grows more lethargic, miserable, judgmental and loathing of all the other characters onstage as each scene progresses but never manages to lose sight of Rakitin’s heart. Nancy Palk and Joseph Ziegler share an awkward, yet delightfully hilarious, scene surrounding Doctor Shpigelsky’s (Ziegler), distain for social airs, graces and etiquette and his view that marriage to a middle aged spinster (Palk) is their most sensible course of action. Watching the subtly between these two theatre legends is captivating theatre at its best.
Despite spanning an array of different time periods, László Marton uses extreme realism to create the world of this play for his audience, including a drenching rain and a tire swing on which Fion Byrne soared directly over my head. This realism particularly suits the relationship between Aleksei and Vera, played by Jeff Lillico and Tal Gottfried respectively. Dressed in modern clothing, Lillico and Gottfried create a sweet relationship for their characters filled with exuberance, fun and all the delights of the countryside in the summer. Together they are reminiscent of characters from a romantic comedy, which, I think adds to the heartbreak of their bourgeoning connection being so drastically thwarted before it has ample time to bloom.
Jeff Lillico is swathed in boyish charm in this role, completely devoid of ego, yet understandably irresistible to all the young women in the play. Tal Gottfried is especially brilliant as Vera, a still very naive and childlike eighteen year old tomboy whose introduction to us is her eating jam, with her fingers, directly from the jar. Her love for Aleksei is pure, but Gottfried turns fierce as her world crashes around her, but never uproots Vera from being a teenager. She has an equally moving connection to Byrne’s Natalya which enriches the play’s inherent tragedy nicely. I did feel as though the chemistry between Lillico and Gottfried’s characters felt perhaps a bit too intense at times, considering Aleksei maintains that his feelings for her are purely like a brother and younger sister. However, even this only complicates the dynamics of the performance, since it is entirely possible that he is not being forthwith when asked to describe their relationship.
There is so much that is intriguing, and excitingly so, about László Marton’s production of A Month in the Country and even though all the elements never quite add up perfectly, the flawed nature of these choices only seem to enrich Turgenev’s deeply flawed characters and the intricate tale they weave. The performances are uniformly breathtaking and everything else is the sort of theatrically messy work that makes my eyes twinkle with delighted and slightly mischievous fascination.
Soulpepper’s production of A Month in the Country plays at  The Young Centre for the Performing Arts (Michael Young Theatre) at 55 Mill Street Building #49, Toronto. For tickets or for more information please call 416.866.8666 or go online to www.soulpepper.ca.