Provo Theatre Company has a well-deserved reputation for putting on high-quality, professional shows, generally of a more light-hearted nature. This season has featured the farcical “Lend Me a Tenor,” the nostalgic “Forever Plaid,” and the hilarious “A Tuna Christmas,” to name a few, and this summer will bring “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Let it not be said, however, that Provo Theatre Company cannot handle serious drama. The current production is David Mamet’s controversial “Oleanna,” and while the play doesn’t have Mamet’s infamous swearing, it does have all the elements of a typical Mamet work: realistic, plentiful dialogue, and conflict. BUCKETS of conflict.
There are only two characters: John (Carl Belliston) and Carol (Celesta Davis). John is a college professor, though we don’t know exactly what he teaches. Carol is his student, and her background and upbringing are unclear, becoming even muddier after the first act. We don’t know either of their last names, nor at which university all this takes place. All of the action takes place in John’s office over the course of a few months — or more accurately, the action takes place elsewhere and we see only the aftermath, in John’s office.
Such a set-up — one set, two actors, minimal action, lots of talking — could be a boring, disastrous flop were each of those elements not played to the hilt. Fortunately, they are.
Director Charles Lynn Frost keeps the set simple and sparse, but with one significant, symbolic twist: After each act, a faultline running down the floor of the stage gets tweaked, symbolizing the growing rift between John and Carol. For you see, after a seemingly innocent conversation regarding Carol’s grade, John’s desire to help her, and the nature of a college education, accusations begin to fly and a modern-day witch hunt takes place. The charges brought against John are so unfair, so appalling, so infuriating, that one cannot help but be riveted as he tries to talk sense into Carol.
Carol’s destructive actions are seemingly unmotivated, and her character is confusing, and she is portrayed this way on purpose. Watch her taking notes in the first act and see how naive and almost dim she seems. Then watch her in the second, and especially the third act, and see if she’s the same person. Is she? Was she merely pretending at the beginning? Or is she actually behaving exactly the same way all through the play, and we merely interpret her differently based on what we learn of her? The question goes unanswered, again on purpose.
For that is the basis of the play — interpretation. One can say or do something that is intended as harmless and meaningless, but it can be interpreted — misinterpreted, over-interpreted, whatever — by others to be quite significant. Can Carol really believe all the things she charges John with? Can she really have interpreted him that way? The audience is incredulous and outraged, along with John, that someone could possibly be so narrow-minded and cruel, and frustrated that our society is set up to give those insane accusations credence.
Not that John is without fault. On the contrary, he is pedantic, verbose, self-centered, hypocritical, and elitist. By the end of the play, you will fully hate one of the two characters, and there will come a moment — a very pivotal moment — when you will, along with one of them, wish the worst upon the other. This catharsis does not come, though, for the audience or for the characters, and we are left, with them, to examine ourselves and try to determine how we could have gotten so worked up to begin with.
That’s the nature of this play. It makes you think. The ending is not happy, but neither is it depressing. The play is forceful, powerful and engrossing, as it practically grabs you by the shirt collar and demands that you listen to it. It is not light-hearted, happy fare; nor is it for the casual theater-goer who likes to hear snippets of the dialogue and whisper to his or her neighbor the rest of the time. You have to WATCH “Oleanna,” and LISTEN to it. Fortunately, these actors and this director make it impossible to resist doing either. This is a drama not to be missed.
I expected a lot out of my first David Mamet play, and I wasn't disappointed. The play itself is only 75 minutes long; the intermissions after the first and second acts drag out the overall length a bit. Everything moves along quickly and briskly, and the dialogue is just great.
And what does "Oleanna" mean? Good question. From what I can gather, it had to do with a European fellow named Ole who began a sort of Utopian society called Oleanna in the United States in the 1800s. Under this society, everyone was supposed to be celibate -- except for him, and he could have sex with anyone he wanted. You can imagine why the society didn't last long, and why "Oleanna" is a pretty good title for the play.
This went on to become PTC's least-attended show in history. No one wanted to see it. That's a shame, because it was a great show.