Friday, February 14, 2020

Review: “Oleanna”

By Alec Clayton
Published in The News Tribune, Feb. 14, 2020
Angelica Barksdale as Carol and Sean Neely as John. Photo by Lisa Monet Photography. 
David Mamet writes dialogue in such a unique way that the way his characters talk has become known as Mamet Speak. It is the way people actually talk, with stops and starts, lots of “ums and uhs” and incomplete sentences – none of which works very well when other playwrights attempt it, but lends burning realism to Mamet plays.
His intense and unsettling two-person play “Oleanna,” now playing at Tacoma Arts Live’s Theater on the Square, opens with college professor John having a one-side phone conversation while his student Carol waits for him to get off the phone. He stammers and repeats himself, paces the floor and keeps trying to signal Carol to wait, while she struggles barely successfully to remain calm and patient. In this opening scene, without Carol and the professor saying a word to each other, reams of information are conveyed through their body language. This is writing and acting of the highest order. Kudos to Angelica Barksdale as Carol and Sean Neely as John.
From this opening, the two feel each other out, circling like boxers with tentative jabs before trying to land a knockout punch. The audience can sense the knockout punch is coming, and it does, over and over, harder and harder, until Carol finally charges him with sexual harassment, and John falls apart in a most spectacular fashion.
When “Oleanna” was first performed in 1992, it was seen by some as a diatribe against “political correctness,” and audiences went away arguing about who was right and who was wrong – Carol or John. Heated talkbacks after performances became common and eventually, Mamet weighed in saying theaters that produce the shows should not allow for talkbacks with the cast and director. Today, after the Anita Hill/Justice Clarence Thomas case and charges against Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein to name a few, and the Me-Too movement, people may well view sexual harassment quite differently. Still, “Oleanna” provides no clear answers. Both John and Carol are manipulative, each has their own agenda, and each goes through many changes in the course of their meetings in John’s office.
The set by Lex Marcos is a beautiful and immaculately ordered university professor’s office with a large desk, a small table, books on shelves and two posters on the walls, each perfectly chosen for this production. One has the word harassment in stark red letters and a list of harassing actions that will not be tolerated. The other one is a quote from the poet Hafiz, “The words you speak become the house you live in.”
“Oleanna” is thought-provoking, intense and dark. The direction by Joshua Knudson and the acting by Barksdale and Neely are excellent. I saw something opening night I have never seen in my years as a reviewer. No one applauded at the end of the first act, and for a long time no one got up to stretch their legs for go out for concessions at intermission. I think they were too stunned by what they had just witnessed on stage. This is not an easy play to watch, but it is a great play.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15, 21 and 22, 3 p.m. Feb. 16 and 23
WHERE: Theater on the Square, 915 Broadway, Tacoma
TICKETS: $19-$39
INFORMATION: (253) 591-5894,
915 Broadway, Tacoma, WA 98402

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