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Riverside’s Oleanna – A brilliant take on provocative Mamet play

Normally, a play opens with the rise of a curtain or lights coming up on a darkened stage. But at Riverside Theatre’s taught and gripping production of “Oleanna,” it’s the sound of quickening jungle drums that sets the stage for David Mamet’s aggressive drama.

“Oleanna” is an intellectually charged tragedy broken into three short acts. It is set in the office of a pompous college professor who is about to receive tenure, which is a good thing because he is about to buy a larger house for his family. He’s on one of many repeated phone calls when we first see him. It’s apparent he needs to leave.

But in a corner of his office sits Carol, a meek, young female student who has come to see him to get help to get a better grade. Carol complains that she does not understand his lectures and she must pass his course. And indeed, when John tries to explain to her his academic intent, his pedantry keeps him speaking down to her.

Carol laments that she must be stupid and that she’s been called that all her life. John tells Carol she is not stupid, she’s just angry.

And this is where an otherwise wordy play becomes slyly provocative. We wonder what these two characters truly want from one another.

John calls Carol a “bright girl,” but she doesn’t believe him. She’s had too many people in her life tell her she’s not.

He puts his briefcase down, takes off his jacket, saying “look at me, look at me.” He plays with his necktie. He puts his hands in his pockets. These, of course, are little actions with which Sigmund Freud would have a field day. Then John tells a dirty joke using a sophisticated term.

More back and forth with academic-speak and Carol explodes with self-pity. John puts an arm around her, and she suddenly shouts, “No!”

At this point, you think she is overreacting. He hasn’t done anything overt. Perhaps she’s easily “triggered” due to past traumatic experiences. The idea that surprise is a form of aggression is floated. And indeed, after the sound of drums heralds the beginning of Act Two, we immediately learn that Carol has filed sexual harassment charges against John.

Now John is the one who asks to see Carol. Her claims are jeopardizing his being awarded tenure and caused him to lose his deposit on the house. But Carol is not as meek as she was in the first act.

She wears a masculine plaid shirt and often speaks of her “group,” and pulls out her ubiquitous note pad to read notes she has taken from their first meeting. In the first act, her taking notes seemed properly submissive for a student, but now the note taking has turned aggressive. Is she a hunter? Was her meekness an act and has she been used by a feminist “group” to entrap John from the get-go?

Here, Mamet’s writing accelerates into sheer fascination. Influences from the offstage world intrude and we wonder what a character’s real goal and real motivation are. It becomes a mystery that is never fully answered.

The action intensifies in the third act. Carol is now in power. A cap covers her last vestige of femininity.

“I came here to instruct you,” she snaps at John.

She appears well educated by her “group,” which has given her a list of books which they demand should be banned. The phone keeps ringing. He tells his wife he can’t talk and calls her “baby.”

Already threatening his career, Carol thoroughly intrudes into John’s life when she warns him not to call his wife “baby.” The act ends with sudden physical, emotional and verbal violence and a final line that should prompt much debate.

This is a tasty drama that is rarely produced because it is so demanding. Mastering Mamet’s language is like scaling Mount Olympus. And the rhythm of action and dialogue is keenly challenging.

His work has been likened to Harold Pinter with dialogue teeming with iambic thrust and parry and the pacing ever on point. But director Chris Clavelli and the wonderful cast create a rare theatrical experience.

Denis Lambert and Dani Nelson are particularly strong as John and Carol. They disappear into their roles while keeping sharp attention on the precision in the dialogue and its pacing, which they have down cold. It’s a treat to pull back and just observe their excellent acting.

Notice must also be given to Emily Luongo’s scenic design, Anna Hillbery’s costume design, William Gibbons-Brown’s subtle lighting design and Sam Hopewell’s sound design.

“Oleanna” has had a tremendous amount of literary and dramatic analysis done on it.

While some point to the ‘he said/she said’ themes of the senate hearings with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, Mamet has stated that he began writing the play before those hearings took place.

He says while living in Cambridge, Mass., he became fascinated with stories about the power dynamics of male professors who had romantic relationships with their female students. And he insists that “Oleanna” is a tragedy and that both characters are protagonists.

But since Mamet is now known, in part, for his conversion from liberal to conservative politics, it would be understandable for people to take this as a play about political correctness and #MeToo gone wild or gone righteous.

The name “Oleanna,” never uttered in the play, comes from a Pete Seeger folk song about the fabled utopia of Oleanna, founded in Pennsylvania by Norwegian immigrants. The land, however, was too full of rocks so the Norwegians sailed back home. It has been posited that Oleanna suggests the utopian ideal of academia which, at the play’s end, is rocky to say the least.

“Oleanna” runs through April 9 on the Waxlax Stage at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Dr., Vero Beach. Tickets are $65. The show contains adult language and situations.

Call 772-231-6990 or visit

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