The Burden of Oleanna

A shoestring theater company tackles issues of class and privilege, by way of Mamet.

TheatreFIRST czar Michael Storm wrote in a recent email: “You will NOT see this from me again. Mark my words.” He was responding to a reviewer’s genuine adulation (“I have no idea how you balance artistic directing with acting, but I’m endlessly impressed”). It would be a shame if he did, indeed, give up the craft, even if he’s currently acting under duress: The exigencies of running one of the most successful “poor companies” in the Bay Area means Storm is constantly looking for ways to produce a worthy show on an $8,000 budget. Usually, the solution is to hire one actor and a small crew of set designers, then direct and act himself.

Thus, he starred in TheatreFIRST’s well-crafted 2010 production of the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in the 2011 play Hanging Georgia, and in the company’s current staging of David Mamet’s 1992 drama Oleanna, in which an argument between a professor and one of his female students devolves into malicious accusations of sexual harassment. Written around the time of the Anita Hill hearings, the play is steeped in the discourse of the time. Sexual harassment was an old practice but a relatively new concept. It was inflammatory but also ambiguous; it could be a great equalizer for women, or a tool with which to manipulate the power structure, or a way to tackle a more abstract and opaque form of social disparity.

Storm added an extra layer of complication by casting a Latina actress, Josie Alvarez, in the role of the student, Carol. Instantly the power dynamic becomes more pronounced, and it’s much harder to think of Carol as a conniving brat who uses sexual harassment opportunistically. The language barrier between them (she begs him to stop using big vocabulary words), and the fatuousness of his statement that really, “I’m just like you,” take on a different meaning when gender privilege is compounded by race and class. Moreover, Carol is made to look young and innocent in this play, with her preppy shirts, carefully tabulated notes, and bulky backpack — at one point, she uses the hem of the bag to wipe tears from her eyes. The opening scene of the play, in which the professor leaves Carol waiting at the door of his office while he engages in a heated phone conversation about real estate, seems all the more insensitive as the differences between them are revealed. So, too, is his book — required reading in Carol’s class — questioning the value of higher education, and his cavalier line about property taxes for schools being “the white man’s burden.”

How the professor, John, emerges as a sympathetic character is largely a matter of how Michael Storm approaches the role. It could also be a testament to his natural air of humility, or the vanquished look he brings to his character: all mussed hair and pouchy eyes, his clothing progressively more disheveled as the play wears on. And perhaps some of that could be attributed to his real-life predicament of having to double as both the director and male lead. Mamet is taxing, indeed, and memorizing the lines for one character is by itself a valiant undertaking. Storm’s exhaustion is visible in all the lines and crags of his face, and he lends a world-weary melancholia to an otherwise vile character. At many points, he makes the professor seem almost likable. Almost.

Perhaps that’s a dubious silver lining for a man whose burden far surpasses that of a comfortable university professor. The labor that went into this play is evident from the opening scene, when Storm and Alvarez struggle through Mamet’s tortuous script. Every Mamet play is, in essence, a series of cross-examinations. Sentences end in ellipses; characters interject and cut each other off. It’s hard to make that feel natural on stage, and in this particular play you often hear a pause between two lines of dialogue, when, in fact, one character is supposed to be interrupting the other. Even one beat of silence can make the whole thing seem stagey and canned — more a reader’s theater than an actual argument.

That got better as the play progressed during opening night, and it will surely improve by leaps and bounds later in the run. Other elements of Oleanna were artfully executed and helped add dimension to an already fraught conflict. Like Storm, Alvarez radiates a natural sweetness that belies the despicable behavior of her character, and she manages to evoke pity even while cudgeling an already-disgraced professor. Small details, like the severity of her ponytail in Act II, help underscore the shifting power dynamic without obfuscating the humanity of each character. And the race element — which, Storm notes, was deliberate — is a brilliant addition. Particularly for a play shown in Berkeley, just blocks away from a university that has become a locus of race and class conflict in the higher-education system at large.


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