Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Oleanna"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

entire contents Copyright 2009 Tony Annicone


Reviewed by Scott Sandonato

Last night I attended the David Mamet play "Oleanna at The Calderwood Pavillion At The Boston Center For The Arts. "Oleanna" is Mamet's masterpiece, about the power struggle between a university proffessor (John played brilliantly by Allan Mayo) and one of his female students (played by the young and talented Judith Kalaora), who accuses him of sexual explotation and, by doing so, spoils his chances of being accorded tenure. The play's title, taken from a folk song, refers to a 19th-century escapist vision of utopia.

The plays of David Mamet are highly taut dialogues, that on the surface often seem banal, but beneath which invariably lie situation and subtexts of tremendous power and urgency. The play's first scene is rather slow going, but it is this scene that is the stepping stones to a fierce, explosive ending.

The story revolves around a college professor (Allen Mayo), whom we only know as John, who in the beginning is approached by a female student, Carol (Judith Kalaora), who beckons and pleads with him to explain to her the deep, dark secrets hiding within the pages of his book, which he teaches in class. This first act establishes John as a self-absorbed, arrogant bastard whose profession as a teacher affords him little joy; we see him in a somewhat hypocritical light, as he discusses with Carol his opinions about how learning is something we've been molded to accept as a predestined part of our lives.

This is all very intriguing, but it. It may be easy to understand where John is coming from, but how is any of this helping Carol? Throughout their initial conversation that reaches into the dark hours of evening (they never once leave his office), she beckons and pleads with him to help her comprehend what he is trying to say, both in his book and his spoken words. We begin to feel a sense of confusion, aiming our sympathies at Carol, whom we can see is obviously lost in the mix.

But then, Mamet turns the tables on us. With the second act, he reverses the characterization of Carol, turning her into a well-educated tyrant with a penchant for big words and in-your-face histrionics (not exactly the meek little girl we saw only moments earlier). After some questionable moves were made on the part of John the night before, she has now made claims of sexual harassment that threaten to damage his reputation at the college and ruin his family life. It's clear from this point on that she has the upper hand: Mamet makes us wary of this by turning John into a simpering baby who's either out to protect himself from certain downfall, or truly apologetic for something he may or may not have done.

It's also painfully obvious that Carol is aiming for more than justice in her actions against John. She clearly enjoys watching him squirm: in a sense, she's exercising her power as the puppeteer, which she proves by going back to talk to him, even when she is recommended otherwise. Any sympathy we had for this character in earlier developments is lost in the transition from one act to another; soon, it comes down to a question of who is right, and who is wrong.

The events of the previous night in question can be taken in two different ways: there are those who will see his actions as a bit extreme, especially given the student/teacher nature of their relationship. Others will label his actions as responses to Carol's losing control of herself, which she clearly does in more than one instance.

So with whom shall we side? The first act pits us against John; later, we're angry with Carol (or it could be the complete opposite, depending on your point of view). In a sense, no one is the winner here. We dislike John in the beginning because he is rude and distanced from his students; later, we feel pity for him when he is faced with the possibility of losing his tenure and his house. As a reversal, we feel bad for Carol early on because she's being treated like dirt; soon, in watching her turn into a vengeful bitch, we come to realize that she's no more worthy of our sympathy than John was prior to the misunderstanding between them.

For this play to work it is important to have two strong actors, and luckily we do. Mayo and Kalaora own these roles and they play well off each other. The dialogue sometimes has them running over each other's lines. But the two brilliant actors nail their parts and bring an explosive ending to this gripping Mamet masterpiece. Mayo plays it a bit different than previous version of the play, leaving the audience to be undecisive on who is the victim here. Kalaora as Carol, starts off as a timid, dense girl and transforms her into a fierce, vengeful woman. Her tenacity brings life to the role and turns the character into the exact opposite of what we think she is.

A lot of people will think this is a play about sexual harrassment but will be surprised to find out that it is really about "power". Showing the audience how power can be transferred from one individual to another with a series of events and accusations that can make the powerful weak and the weak powerful.

For information on Judith Kalaora go to OLEANNA is playing at The Calderwood Pavilion At The Boston Center For The Arts October 8th-17th

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This review submitted by:
-Scott Sandonato, Actor, Writer, Film Connoisseur

"Oleanna" (11 September - 4 October)
Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide