The stage was set and simple for the final MainStage performance of David Mamet’s “Oleanna” Sunday in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. As director of the two-person play and theater department professor Alan Wade stood to thank his last audience and requested one thing – for the performance to provoke them.
“Oleanna,” which opened Thursday, is not light subject matter. The play, which premiered almost two decades ago, concerns itself with the sordid relationship between John, a university professor, and one of his female students, Carol.
In the Sunday performance, sophomore Arielle Katcher played Carol, a clumsy student on the verge of failing. Junior Max Shelton played John, a pompous professor who confuses Carol by feeding her lofty concepts and opinions on academia instead of actually tutoring her.
John and Carol’s connection is unclear but suggests a physical or perverse relationship, however, “Oleanna” doesn’t provide clear answers to the questions it raises.
As the play reaches its climax, John is left jobless and is faced with sexual harassment charges, while Carol appears empowered if a bit naive.
John’s final attack on Carol, however, illustrates the power of words to confuse, mislead and ultimately control an individual to the point of losing himself.
Wade’s choice of play was intriguing and thought-provoking. As director, he was aware of the challenge “Oleanna” brought its actors and the audience.
One of the most interesting aspects of the production was Wade’s decision to present an alternating cast – he cast two Carols and two Johns. The characters were broken into the alpha and omega casts, allowing alpha Carol and John to rehearse with one another and the same for the omega cast.
“The acting experiment followed my decision to provide more roles for our students than a two-character play would normally permit,” explained Wade. “That was the original reason for choosing ‘Oleanna.'”
The actors performed with their rehearsed partners for the first two nights, but alternated on the last two. The experiment provided two exciting performances, while keeping each night noticeably different from the night before. Wade said the actors were well-rehearsed and, while the lines didn’t change, the blocking, or movement, did.
“I think what happened was that there was that sense of the actor being ‘in the moment,’ which is always what the actor wants since plays ‘live’ in the virtual present just as we live our lives,” said Wade.
Katcher, a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, was entirely unaware of Wade’s decision to present an alternating cast until after she had been cast in the production. The situation appeared daunting and “scary” initially to Katcher, but she was ultimately grateful for the exciting learning opportunity.
Stimulating both its actors and its audience, Wade’s “Oleanna” raised many questions about power and language, as well as the perception of reality. According to Wade, the university setting lent even more depth to the production.
“Add to that the fact that this was parents weekend,” said Wade. “And the play resonates even more.”