By Michele Markarian
‘Oleanna’ – Written by David Mamet. Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Presented by New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through November 5
I feel like I need to start this review off by saying that I am – absolutely – a feminist. Keep reading, and you’ll see why.
“Oleanna” takes place in the office of John (Johnny Lee Davenport), a professor at a college whose impending tenure has just been announced. The subsequent raise in pay is allowing him to purchase a new home. A series of phone calls negotiating the details of this real estate transaction is interrupted by the arrival of Carol (Obehi Janice), a student who claims to be having difficulty with his class and in particular, his textbook. The textbook, one that he has authored himself, refers to higher education as “systematic hazing”. As someone who has worked hard to get herself to college, Carol is deeply offended by this. As she despairs at being too “stupid” to understand what is going on in his classroom, John offers to give her an A, if she agrees to meet with him for tutoring sessions. This decision will ultimately be John’s downfall.
John might embody the worst kind of academic, full of self-importance and lording his intellectual advantage over his students. This grandiosity – he has written a book, after all – knows no sex. Female professors, and I have known a few, can be just as guilty. But Carol has other plans for John, rather than tenure and a new home. From the beginning, as she reaches into her bag and periodically takes notes, clicks on an iPhone – is she taping him? – Carol has an agenda, and she won’t be satisfied until she executes it. She takes statements he makes innocently and repeats them back to him – “You want to be personal with me?” “Why shouldn’t I be personal with you?” asks John quizzically. Oh boy. Because she’s recording all of this, Professor, and she’s going to use it against you, until you turn into the very thing she’s been accusing you of all along.
As I mentioned, I am a feminist. But Carol, as depicted by the playwright, is some kind of feminist dybbuk. John can’t see, past his own desire to be of assistance, that he is dealing with a time bomb. Worse, she is complicit. When she comes back to John’s office at his invitation for a third time, after she’s filed an accusation of attempted rape, this audience member wanted to hurl her body between the two of them until they both retreated, never to intersect again. The veneer of academic interest won’t work here – emotions are running high for both of them.
Is Carol abused by John? In the end, yes. Does she goad him into it? Can a reasonable man be goaded into abuse? Is it John’s original intent to abuse Carol, sexually or otherwise? Does any of this matter when at the end of the play, one’s feelings of sympathy rest with John, whose career is destroyed, and not Carol, who seems to have gotten what she wanted all along? I realize that (without context) this is an awful, awful, statement. But structurally, if Carol’s objective is to bring John down for a sexual/physical crime (she keeps referring to her “group”, as if she were representing a cadre of feminists) and John’s objective is to help Carol, then both of them get what they want from each other
All this, and I haven’t even touched upon this excellent production, deftly directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Davenport and Janice give two intense, finely tuned performances. Davenport’s John starts out self-satisfied, affable, a man about to provide well for his family. His interest in Carol seems more avuncular than predatory. Davenport, a physically imposing man, manages to make himself small at the devastating end of this ninety minute piece. Janice is the opposite; her Carol takes on monumental proportions as the play progresses. She is visibly alert to Davenport’s statements; he plays blissfully oblivious to her intent. This boxing match is well displayed by James F. Rotondo III’s simple, effective set, a square set in the middle of the stage, that artfully shifts, like a Lazy Susan, at the end of each scene. AJ Jones costumes the actors to reflect their changing statuses with each set shift.
It’s a hostile, difficult play, and I worried about the actors. “I hope they find a way to be friends,” I whispered during the curtain call to my husband, who played the role of John almost 20 years ago and still shudders at the memory. At that moment, Davenport and Janice turned to each other and gave a little bow. Janice touched her hands to her heart and gestured, ever so slightly, to Davenport. I am tearing up just typing this. The actors at least get the reconciliation that their characters don’t. For more info, go to: http://www.newrep.org/