Stellar Performances Highlight BRT’s OLEANNA

by Walter Bender

David Barlow (John) & Blair Baker (Carol) star in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of OLEANNA by David Mamet, running September 25-October 14, 2012. (Photo credit: BRT Staff)

Sometimes I find that I am a very cranky older man, wondering how our world got so PC. Things that were acceptable in my youth are now looked upon as socially inept, and one wonders how that could have happened. Fortunately for all of us “male chauvinist pigs”, the world has changed, and hopefully we have changed with it. To remind us of why, David Mamet provides OLEANNA, currently running at Bristol Riverside Theatre, based on the climate forged from the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy of the early 1990’s.

OLEANNA shows us the conflicting worlds of John, a professor at an unnamed university who teaches a class based largely on his own book, and Carol, a shy student in his class. John is up for tenure and a large raise and is involved in purchasing a new home when Carol comes into his office. She is confused by his class and does not understand the material. Through constant phone interruptions, John at first seems insensitive to her confusion, then finally decides to help Carol, telling her that he likes her, and takes the blame for her inability to understand. He offers to give her an “A” in his class if she will return to his office several more times to discuss the material. At one point in their discussions, he places a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, but she shakes it off. Later (in Act II) a more self-confident Carol meets with John, discussing her formal complaint against him alleging sexist and pornographic behavior. Things escalate, and in frustration John physically prevents Carol from leaving his office. As a result, John not only does not get tenure and his raise, he is dismissed from the university, and subsequently finds out from Carol that she has charged him with attempted rape.

Director Keith Baker has done a magnificent job with this production. He has a terrific grasp of both the material and the distinctive style of Mamet’s writing, working through some of the most difficult passages of the dialogue with the cast brilliantly. Mamet’s use of “Mamet-Speak”, a series of short, truncated sentences where both actors interrupt each other constantly, can be confusing and boring. In this production, the actors make those exchanges electric, with each person’s desire and need to get their points across evident in every word. The subtle changes in body language and positions in each scene accentuate the power struggle, making the show even more forceful.

I cannot express my appreciation of the performances of Blair Baker and David Barlow strongly enough. Baker, who trained at Atlantic Theater Company (founded by Mamet and William H. Macy who portrayed John in the off-Broadway production and a later movie), does an amazing job of transforming Carol from the shy and unsure student to the almost-arrogant accuser. Conversely, Barlow is the ultimate egoist in the beginning, transforming into a man unsure of himself and many of his beliefs, and his last-ditch attempt to reclaim his life and shocked realization of what he has become is amazing. The interplay between the two is mesmerizing at times, with the instances of Mamet-Speak very natural.

The set, lighting and costumes accentuated the feeling of the play. Set designer Julia C. Lee has constructed a closed-in set on the mammoth BRT stage, giving the needed claustrophobic feel, and ingenious cutouts give the set an almost prison-like feel at times. The lighting, designed by Charles S. Reece utilizes the cutouts to their maximum effect. Costumes, designed by Linda Bee Stockton, helped the audience see and feel the change in power through the play. I found the (perhaps serendipitous) look of Carol’s jacket in the third act, and its similarity in color and design to John’s sport coat in the first act very ingenious.

I LOVED this production. While I am a huge fan of Mamet, I have found many productions of his plays to be plodding and deadly to an audience. Neither is the case with this production. The show breezes along very quickly, and the ending comes almost too soon…I wanted to see more of these peoples’ exchanges. Congratulations to cast and crew for an amazing production.

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Keith Baker
September 25-October 14, 2012
Bristol Riverside Theatre
120 Radcliffe Street
Bristol PA 19007

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