Jason Lehner in Oleanna. When Oleanna appeared in 1992, audiences were perplexed. Whether it was the David Mamet’s powerful film scenario, or the stage production which we also saw at the NAC around that period, audiences could not quite figure out what Mamet’s position was. Was this an angry backlash against a dogmatic feminist movement which is portrayed as a form of Fascist inquisition through the actions of a vindictive student trying to get back at her prof? Or is this professor getting what he deserves?
The writing takes us both ways, which is what makes the play so disturbing and yet so intriguing because it all seems to make sense, whichever way one understands this taught drama that builds up to an almost unbearable and totally unresolved climax where verbal violence appears to breed physical violence.
This production by the Red Collective, directed by Ian Moggach seems to have made some choices which raise many questions.
The young cast is, without a doubt, very talented. Jonah Lerner as the professor, and Laura Abramsen as the student were completely immersed in their roles and the production moved briskly along in that small Saw Theatre where the performance space had the audience sitting on both sides of the acting area. This was an excellent choice because one often has trouble seeing the stage at the Saw and this new configuration made it much easier to see the actors.
Lerner’s professor was, however, the big question mark. From the very first moment, he was intense, nervous, high strung, volatile, edgy and prone to outbursts of violence. He laid his character out before us very quickly and because of that immediate outpouring of extreme energy and rage (over the question of the new house); he left himself nowhere to build. He talked quickly, he interrupted the student, he babbled on about himself (all in the text of course) but somehow, his rapid and angry delivery turned him into an egomaniac. He never listened to this nervous young girl who came to see him at the beginning His intense rhythm had him interrupting her whenever she opened her mouth. If she misunderstood his references, his attempts to appear sympathetic, we can see why. He yelled, and cut her off and barely acknowledged her presence. He created the portrait of a pompous self-centred ass that was incapable of listening to another person, certainly not a student!
I don’t remember other actors taking the role to this extreme. Strangely therefore, the professor was not quite as likeable as he might have been and when the student hits him with her long list of complaints, I almost felt like saying “good for her”. She did not let herself get pushed around. Laura Abramsen as the young student who seems to be completely confused and even intellectually limited at the beginning, makes an excellent transformation into the self-assured feminist who has appears to have been brainwashed by the “group” guiding her throughout this whole confrontation. At least that is what Mamet would have us believe.
Nevertheless, in spite of the various possibilities of interpretation, Mamet’s text almost speaks for itself and as soon as this student shows to what extent she appears to be manipulated by her “group”, she loses all credibility and the violent ending leaves us all in a terrible limbo, not knowing which side to take although I have the feeling that once one speaks of books being banned, a writer like Mamet would see this as the ultimate crime and would have no mercy for the one responsible.
Lerner’s high powered performance however changed the dynamics of the show and it made him a lot less sympathetic. The constant ringing of the telephone which was supposed to be the intrusive third voice that kept interrupting him at some of the most intense moments of the play did not quite work as well as it might have. The phone calls about a house deal inevitably set him off on another raging tantrum but since he was already in a hysterical tantrum mode, those calls lost their dramatic power, which was a shame.
The scene that worked very well was the moment he discovers, during a phone call, that she has brought criminal charges against him. Suddenly this is no longer a simple confrontation between a professor and what seems to be a vindictive student. This is almost the end of his life. And then his world slowly crashes.
In spite of the extremely high strung performance by Lerner which exploded from the very beginning, this is an acceptable production of what has become a contemporary classic and the interaction between the two actors was quite powerful. Director Iain Moggach obviously has talent and we hope to see more of his work in the near future. The choice of music also worked very well.
This production of Oleanna is certainly worth seeing because it reveals the essence of a conflict that might be seen as the result of the clash of two dogmatic visions of the world. Perhaps it doesn’t matter who is right or who is wrong. It almost works as a symbol for all current forms of fanaticism and in that sense, the play is extremely timely.
The show runs at the Saw Gallery August 2 to 5 at 8pm. Seating is limited so reserve your places by e-mail: email@example.com
by David Mamet
Produced by the Red Collective
Director: Iain Moggach
Set/costumes designer Iain Moggach
Johah Lerner as John
lara Abramsen as Carol.