Maidment Theatre - Musgrove Studio, Auckland

17/09/2008 - 04/10/2008

Production Details

Oleanna storms back onto Auckland’s stage 

"There can be no tougher or more unflinching play than Oleanna"
Harold Pinter

Since its premiere in 1989, David Mamet’s most controversial and celebrated work OLEANNA has polarised audiences on Broadway, in the West End and around the world.  Now in the hands of director Michael Lawrence and Opportune Productions, OLEANNA demonstrates its enduring relevance at Auckland’s Musgrove Theatre from Sept 17 – October 4.

The first great American play to acknowledge the imminent 20th century ‘power shift’ between the sexes, OLEANNA begins with an unconventional university professor trying to assist a struggling female student who has come to him for help.  The encounter soon sours.  As opinions collide an epic power struggle is born, crashing ideals of sexual empowerment and free speech with invasive political correctness.  The result is explosive. 

Director Michael Lawrence says OLEANNA is likely to provoke more arguments than any other play this year: "This play raises the controversial issues of political correctness at a time when the nation has been tested by some high profile incidents of sexual harassment.  It’s one of those plays that challenges everyone – as all great theatre should," says Michael.

Loaded with an impressive past, OLEANNA saw its debut under the guiding hands of Mamet and stars William H Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon.  The play then stormed the Royal Court Theatre under the direction of Harold Pinter before sweeping its way across the world stage.

With Opportune Productions, OLEANNA returns to Auckland after ten years to enthrall audiences and ignite this ever-relevant debate.

Fresh from studying acting at New York’s Neighbourhood Playhouse (whose alumni include such acting greats as Steve McQueen, Robert Duvall and fellow New Zealander, Martin Henderson), Auckland-based actress Alison Titulaer will reprise Rebecca Pidgeon’s role playing university student, Carol.  Veteran stage actor Jim McLarty (12 Angry Men, True West, Angels in America) stars as college Professor John. 

"Actors relish the opportunity to act in these volatile and tight two-handers", says Jim. "These characters engage in the most extraordinary heated and intense discussions – giving us as actors a rare opportunity to provoke an audience to its core."

In association with The Murray Hutchinson Creative Trust and with support from Creative Communities OLEANNA plays at the Musgrove Theatre from Sept 17 – Oct 4. 

Bookings can be made through the
Maidment Theatre box office on 09 308 2383
or www.maidment.auckland.ac.nz
Tickets: $20 students and groups of 8 plus / $30 adult.

Jim McLarty
Alison Titulaer

Bronwyn Brent (set)
Yee Yang (Square) Lee (lighting)   

War in microcosm

Review by Renee Liang 04th Oct 2008

To say that Oleanna is about sexual politics is overly simplistic. To say it is about harassment is missing the point. To say it is about a war – both personal and universal – is getting closer to the truth.

Oleanna is one of those plays that stirs up opposing, and rather unpleasant, emotions in those who see it. And it does it not by excessive portrayal of violence, or distasteful sexual acts, but far more elegantly, by screwing with the collective audience mind. In this play by American playwright David Mamet, language is proven to be the most potent of weapons.

In the first act, a college professor, John (Jim McLarty) offers to give extra tutelage to a young female student, Carol (Alison Titulaer) who comes to his office asking for help on the paper he teaches. The dialogue, delivered in a series of stilted, repetitive, frequently interrupted phrases, is deliberately excruciating. Carol’s wall-like “I- don’t-understand” meets John’s clumsy attempts to “help” her. When John starts using overly academic language, there is knowing audience laughter. But to be fair, Carol doesn’t seem to be the world’s brightest student.

The two actors keep tight control of what is often a challenging script. McLarty deftly portrays a bumbling professor. His John has more than a touch of Asperger’s syndrome: fussy, showing a distinct lack of social judgement, blundering through private calls from wife and lawyer while having what he assumes is a kind chat to a student. Titulaer’s Carol is a tightly wound ball of resentment and misunderstanding. Maybe I was tired that night, but I found the first half hard going, with its stops and starts and apparently irrelevant segues. But the payoff in the second half was worth it.

Oleanna is a slow-burn play. Mamet layers the wood of the bonfire in the first act, then throws on the accelerant in the second act. By the third act we can hardly bear to watch – yet are unable to stop watching – as he strikes the match. If you think this is a laboured metaphor, you are right. This is my clumsy attempt to describe the intensity of what happens without giving away the plot. It’s enough to say that victim and oppressor are not always who they appear to be. And it seems that given the same set of data, there is always more than one interpretation of ‘the truth’.

The elegant set design by Bronwyn Bent and lighting by Yee Yang Lee add to the air of the hunter and the hunted. The actors are confined to a raised X in the middle of the stage area, two chairs and a bookshelf. A tight central square provides the arena for confrontation. Small but clever touches add to characterisation– a rake for straightening the carpet, a desktop smoothie machine. The strong overhead lighting subtly suggests an interrogation chamber.

Oleanna is war in microcosm. But Carol and John are not the only characters in the play. Unseen others intrude, often ludicrously, via phone, text message and reported speech. When Carol starts spouting ideology and referring to “my Group”; when there are references to the all-powerful tenure committee, there is a realisation that there are invisible, mostly malevolent forces at work and that the stakes are possibly higher than John, at least, realises. This no less than a confrontation of old-world codes against new.

Director Michael Lawrence has chosen to present victim and oppressor fairly unambiguously, yet I wondered if there was more room for subtlety in the script. In any case, there’s plenty to provoke discussion as we leave the theatre. Political correctness gone mad or a sickness in the academic system? Was the fault entirely one person’s? And so it goes. There’s the admiration of a well-rehearsed production with two well-matched actors, along with a vague discomfort. Is the fictional world is a little too close to the real one, perhaps? It’s not exactly a happy night out. But it may be a worthy one.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.



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Fascinating and timely revival of tilt at PC feminism

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 22nd Sep 2008

David Mamet’s controversial tilt at politically correct feminism exploded on to the American theatre scene in 1992 at a crucial moment in the culture wars. A year earlier, allegations of sexual harassment almost persuaded the United States Senate to block the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and university campuses around the world were in a furore over issues like date rape.

Since then, the feminist revolution has become an entrenched orthodoxy within the academic world the play describes, while the broader society has experienced a backlash against political correctness. At the same time, feminist politics have been transformed by the appeal of "girl power" and theorists like Camille Paglia who vigorously reject the mind-set of victimhood. [More]


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Power struggles

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 20th Sep 2008

David Mamet’s intense two-hander Oleanna is about an angry woman who reveals her own agenda as she systematically destroys an overconfident man, until he eventually lashes out in a seemingly uncharacteristic way.

The play opens in an academic’s office, with a disgruntled student Carol, waiting for her professor to finish a phone call to his wife about their conditional offer on a new house, before confronting him about failing her in the course’s preliminaries. She also reveals other aspects of his teaching and his book that she takes great offence to, or doesn’t understand.

Pedantic & superior yet fair, Professor John is also not without compassion and empathy. Yet attempts to connect with his pent-up student fail on every level. The meeting turns pear-shaped, with destructive consequences, as Carol manipulates political correctness and sexual harassment, as alternative persuasion.

New to the theatre scene, Opportune Production’s version of Oleanna is commendable, yet slow to connect with its audience. Alison Titulaer struggles not only with Mamet’s trademark fragmented dialogue, but also to fully identify her character, in particular through subtext. While past productions may have polarized audiences, here it is hard to identify with Carol, as the performance is somewhat one-note.

While Jim McLarty does his best, too often the tempo is off, pauses have nil affect and the playwright’s hallmark interruptions fall flat, as the delivery is stilted and miss-timed. McLarty’s conversation does however flow naturally when he speaks to a (fictional) person on his cell phone.

To her credit, Titulaer improves in the second half and helps to deliver an explosive end.

Director Michael Lawrence builds in some fine subtleties to Professor John’s character: complete with pretentious phone ring, he first appears as a fit academic in puma pants, happily throwing back a mid-day protein shake; then returns well-suited to ‘face the music’ from his superiors; and finally, is reduced to a sleep-deprived mess by the end.

Set designer Bronwyn Bent & Lighting Designer Yee Yang (Square) Lee, emulate the heart of academia well, with large leather chairs, trophies and accolades for sporting excellence on the top of a healthy book shelf. Brent builds the entire floor of the professor’s room, in the shape of a cross: perhaps a case of "X marks the spot", the scene of the alleged crime, or a more biblical reference for confessions to unfold. Whatever the intention, Lawrence uses Brent’s design to good effect.

Mamet’s language is intentionally disjointed, yet Oleanna is wholeheartedly intellectually penetrating. The play stimulated much discussion within our group afterwards, from wider interpretations of control and influence in today’s political world, to the artificial nature of education, to the illuminating appeal of Mamet’s Oleanna as he flips the balance of power: he assumes it, she resents it, he has it, she wants it, he plays with it, she plots for it, he loses it, she assumes it.

Power will always have enduring relevance.

FOOTNOTE: "As titles go, this one is rather obscure. Oleanna refers to a folk story about how a man (named Ole) and his wife (Anna) bought acres of swampland then sold it as farmland to those who were willing to invest their lives’ savings. Once the money had been collected, the pair vanished and the buyers were left with worthless property. This became known as the "Oleanna swindle." For Mamet, higher education may be today’s "Oleanna swindle." From a 1994 film review by James Berardinelli (http://www.reelviews.net/movies/o/oleanna.html)" 


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