By the time the curtain falls on David Mamet's Oleanna, you're likely to have changed your mind several times about whose side is more "right" in the two-character drama. You're also bound to gain new insight into a misunderstood, sometimes-maligned playwright.
To begin with, the play examines political correctness, sexual harassment and the utopia of higher education--themes that typically elicit staunch conviction, not shaky equivocation, when they become the focus of public debate. And even though the socially relevant play has already received a spate of productions locally and nationwide, it can still pack a punch. This despite the daily frenzy of shock-jock talk that often saps people of their inclination to seriously examine social themes in their own living rooms, much less the theater.
Mamet is no average playwright-turned-social-commentator. Despite his minimalist approach (pick up one of his plays, give it a cursory read, and you'll wonder how Glengarry Glen Ross won the Pulitzer Prize), he remains a significant figure on the American theater scene.
That fact is all the more remarkable when you consider that Mamet's popularity among audiences and theater companies has had the ironic effect of diminishing the impact of his plays in production. Actors everywhere, it seems, imitate what they believe to be the Mamet "style"--rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue delivered by performers who frequently yell incoherently while behaving more like wild animals than human beings. Like so many pretenders who attempt Stanley Kowalski by bellowing "Stella!" in their best Brando imitation, productions of Mamet's plays commonly sacrifice meaning and depth when they attempt to mimic treatments that have received acclaim elsewhere.
Not so with Germinal Stage Denver's production of Oleanna. Bucking all odds that his rendering of the script will be deemed sacrilege among Mamet worshipers, director Ed Baierlein has confidently forged an absorbing production without falling prey to phony mannerisms and effects.
Baierlein defies convention early on as he assumes the role of John, a character often portrayed as a younger, sexier man bent on making his mark in the halls of ivy. In Baierlein's interpretation, however, we encounter a tired, rumpled academician in pursuit of the tenure that will secure his future in a secluded world of words. Along the same lines, Carol, the college student who solicits John for help in the class she's taking from him, is molded by Amy Roeder into a serious, faltering bookworm rather than the pert, malicious vixen that audiences sometimes encounter in the part.
The duo captivates the audience from the first moments of the play, when Carol sits down opposite John at his desk. Phoning his real estate agent to purchase the new house his promotion will make possible (the committee has voted in favor of him but hasn't made its decision official yet), John is simultaneously a power broker and a schmoozer--qualities that will emerge again in his ensuing relationship with Carol.
Baierlein evokes John's expansive, fatherly side, even as his potential for menace is underscored in such lines as "What is important is that I awake your interest, if I can." Roeder initially is uncomfortable with her teacher's gregarious ways but eventually warms to his seemingly innocuous advances, and the stage is set for a classic case of Svengali-student involvement.
But the tables quickly turn--and then turn again. By the time the second half of the hour-and-forty-minute piece begins, John is facing a formal complaint from Carol, and the dramatic action rapidly unravels into a "he said/she said" debacle. John tries to take the high road, telling Carol that the reason he entered the teaching profession is that he hated his own teachers, implying that his motives are therefore somehow noble. She will have none of that, though, and rallies several students to her aid, people who are willing to blindly accept her mere allegations (some have merit, some don't) as positive proof.
Through it all, fine performances hold our interest as strongly as does our speculation about the story's outcome. Both Baierlein and Roeder avoid obvious approaches to their roles, instead relying on Mamet's carefully constructed revelations of character, which progress a step at a time--much as we discover another person's nuances and complexities in real life.
Ultimately, the play's message is reflected in its title, the name of a folk song made famous by Pete Seeger. "Oleanna" was about Norwegian Ole Bull's dream of a secluded community in Pennsylvania, where he could escape "the chains of slavery" in Norway. The problem in the song is that the land didn't belong to the men who sold it to Ole, so his pie in the sky never quite made it out of the oven.
Mamet is describing a similar, more modern, plight. As he decries a society that throws good money after bad in swindles such as higher education, he seems to ask, "Four years, all that money, and you still don't have a job?" Baierlein's smartly staged production exudes that sort of derision, and Mamet's message hits home on an intuitive level that bespeaks good acting and good writing.
Maybe Mamet deserves that Pulitzer after all.
Oleanna, through October 12 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 455-7108.
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