Review: Oleanna (Theatre Penumbra)

Toronto’s Theatre Penumbra presents a timely, intimate version of David Mamet’s play Oleanna

Theatre Penumbra’s production of David Mamet’s Oleanna is terrifying—to me, anyway. I had read it in my early twenties and saw Mamet’s own film version, but I was unprepared for how hard it would hit me now. There in the front row at Red Sandcastle Theatre, sometimes mere inches from the drama as it unfolded—and despite knowing how the story plays out—I held my breath and braced myself. 

Set in a professor’s office, the play lays out three separate exchanges between this professor, John, and his female student, Carol. At first, it seems Carol is merely asking for help understanding the course material which he, John, dutifully—though a little condescendingly—tries to provide. Then, suddenly, there are accusations that threaten his career. The tension escalates as the stakes of their interactions increase.

The play is overwhelmingly relevant right now. In the midst of the #MeToo phenomenon, with powerful men being forced to account for predatory behaviour, with political correctness and freedom of speech in the forefront of our public and private lives, with people demanding that tables must be turned, not merely for fairness but for survival, Oleanna feels fierce and necessary.

Mamet’s text is tricky to sell properly without it feeling rushed or stylized. His dialogue is elliptical and repetitive and if you don’t get the rhythm right, it can be tedious and frustrating. Under the Allegra Fulton’s steady and austere direction, Grace Gordon and James McGowan find a groove that brings all three scenes to messy, fumbling, angry life.

Early on, John is confident, a little bombastic and clearly in his element. This is his office. He is teaching a course that features his book. He’s respected, in the process of purchasing a dream house for his family, and about to be given tenure. Carol, by contrast, seems out of her element, bewildered by his statements and horribly distressed. She sits rigidly in her chair, looking appalled and desperate to understand anything.

There is a moment, towards the end, that sticks in my mind even more vividly than the violence that comes later. John is hunched down in his chair, all his bombast and rhetoric has been spent, and he has nothing left but to consider her question—“Do you hate me?”—and answer honestly: “Yes.” It is a visceral thrill to see McGowan in that moment, in his hunkered-down hostility. And it is both empowering and chilling to see Gordon, confident now, finally facing him as the enemy she always believed was there.

When I first encountered this play, I hated Carol at the end and saw it as an indictment of her—intentionally, vengefully taking his behaviour out of context in order to feel superior, perhaps for the first time in her life. It seemed an absurdist, worst-case scenario of political correctness gone awry. On one level, it is exactly that, yet watching Gordon in the role I felt my loathing for the character subside. Still as frightened as ever, I now feel the need to unpack that fear.

She can’t quite be dismissed, y’see, so I’d like to understand her better. And that’s my responsibility, I guess.

I do not think that John’s intentions were dishonourable or predatory. But ay, there’s the rub: behaviour has consequences, regardless of intentions. Oleanna gives us a scenario in which a white, middle-class, successful white man—accustomed to defining the context of his behaviour—is suddenly held accountable for that behaviour within a new context defined by someone who, only days before, was subordinate to him.

I do, as they play expects me to, think her accusations are ungrounded, but there are kernels of truth in her carefully crafted complaints. There are, indeed, subtle yet legitimately sexist and classist ideas lurking beneath his behaviour. And yes, it’s important that people in positions of power be made to examine their behaviour and attitude.

The whole time, Carol is perfectly steadfast. Initially, unable to relax or be comforted, she demands that every statement he makes be scrutinized. Then, having interpreted each and every one of his statements, she is unwavering in her view of him as an oppressor. In her purposeful and judging eyes is a warning about the wielding of power.

This is not a comfortable experience, but if you like your equilibrium disturbed, Oleanna is up to the challenge.

Details:

  • Oleanna plays until December 3, 2017 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen St. East)
  • Shows run Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, with Sunday matinees at 3:00pm
  • General Tickets are $25, $20 for students and arts workers
  • Tickets can be purchased online

Photo of Grace Gordon and James McGowan provided by the company.

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