Oleanna at Intrepid Shakespeare Company

I've seen three or four versions of David Mamet's mean-spirited drama about a teacher-student conference that goes haywire. Depending on the director, productions favor the professor, assaulted by the over-reacting young feminist; or the student, put upon by a closeted sexist Schweinhund who shows his true, vicious colors in the end.

I've seen enough to wonder which Mamet hates more: academics or feminists?

He may tip his hand in a prefatory quotation to the script. "Even if [young people] are unhappy - very unhappy - it is astonishing how easily they can be prevented from finding it out, or at any rate from attributing it to any other cause than their own sinfulness." - Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh.

John, the professor, says Carol is angry - i.e. unhappy?

Judging from what she wrote in a term paper, Carol shouldn't be in John's class. She hasn't a clue about its first principles. But - since she gains about 50 IQ points between Act one and Act two - did she enroll in it to learn, or to trap an "entitled" prof on the verge of tenure?

John's subject is education, "how people learn." But as written, he's a muddleheaded explainer. True, he's buying a home (both the house and tenure are on the last lap toward completion) and the phone interrupts his train of thought, but it comes off as derailed from the getgo.

What John has is "the power of the grade." He can talk any way he pleases, since his students must listen, or their report cards will suffer.

Carol wants to expose that power and assert her own (when she turns the tables she shouts "it is the power that you hate"). This theme runs through several of Mamet's plays. In Glengarry Glen Ross it's called "the leverage." Whoever has it is in charge and has the ability to define what things mean.

In Oleanna the leverage changes hands. A gentle tap on the shoulder becomes a rape.

To its credit, Intrepid Shakespeare's staging is by far the most balanced I've seen. And the best acted.

Francis Gercke and Rachael VanWormer perform the 80 minute piece in the round. One of the production's most arresting features is the gap between John's desk and Carol's chair. It's wider than most faculty offices have (at least that I've seen, and I've seen many).

Christy Yael designed the set and directed with such deftness that the gap becomes a gulf, a no man's (or woman's) land. When someone bridges it, taboos get broken.

John never should have crossed that gap in the first place.

Gercke and VanWormer are both excellent: he as a soft-spoken, harried, about-to-be-doubly-validated being; she making a major leap from lost soul to the new definer on the block. Best of show: their tandem work is truly impressive.

San Dieguito Academy, 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas, playing through April 14.


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader