Theatre Review: Oleanna

As far as childhood activities go, the telephone game is one of the most popular. The starting player chooses a phrase, whispers it into the next player’s ear and the message passes down the line, yielding minor distortions in transit. Rarely does the message remain intact. More often a phrase like “all the world needs is love” ends up something as absurd as “green orangutan refrigerator.” Although the game is very entertaining, it demonstrates how corrupt information can become through indirect communication.

The consequences of corrupt information and of misunderstanding are at the centre of David Mamet’s play Oleanna which Ground Zero Theatre and the University of Calgary Department of Drama are presenting in the fifth Annual Alumni Show. Oleanna stars U of C Bachelor of Fine Arts graduates Christopher Hunt and Jamie Konchak as John, a university professor, and Carol, a struggling student. The play takes place in John’s office, where he and Carol discuss her difficulties in his class. Their conversation, often interrupted by phone calls regarding John’s house purchase, results in mutual misunderstanding, leading Carol to accuse her professor of sexual harassment. Their miscommunication escalates, destroying lives, careers and result- ing in the play’s harrowing conclusion.

Oleanna’s first production was in 1992, around the time of Senate hearings on Anita Hill’s accusation that then US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. Critics and audiences drew comparisons of the accusation to Oleanna. Although John makes a sexual reference and the play contains several double entendres, Oleanna is less about sex and more of a critique on education, language and socio-economic attitudes.

Both John and Carol are flawed and full of contradictions, resulting in their inability to communicate. John is critical of higher education, calling it the “virtual warehousing of the young,” and yet he makes a career through academic rhetoric. At one point he berates the tenure committee, which is currently reviewing him, then later praises the committee, if only because the tenure will get him a new house and provide him with security.

Carol calls John on his hypocrisy, shifting the balance of power to her. And yet she herself is contradictory. She insists she wants to learn and understand, but she cannot think for herself. Throughout the play she relies on class notes, her report to the tenure committee and the thoughts of her “group.”

The incessant phone calls intensify the conflict between John and Carol. Towards the end of the first act the phone rings before Carol has the chance to reveal something personal to John. In the second act, just when the two characters are able to rectify their situation the phone interrupts them again. Through another phone call John learns Carol plans to charge him with attempted rape, leading to the play’s violent ending.

Although Oleanna is nowhere near as profanity-laden as some of Mamet’s other work, the dialogue is still difficult. Each character’s speech is full of pauses, ellipses, dashes and lots of broken language. Fortunately, Hunt and Konchak have mastered Mamet’s language, allowing the dialogue to flow smoothly.

Oleanna is an apt choice for the Alumni show. Given the play’s setting, audiences will ponder teacher/student relationships, language barriers and the damaging effects of miscommunication. Controversial and thought provoking, Oleanna will leave people talking­–loud and clear.

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