>oleanna by the theatre practice
>reviewed by adele tan
7 aug 2002
Many critical issues will pop up in the audiences' heads when they watch OLEANNA and they run the gamut from political correctness to sexual harassment to higher education and class-gender relations. The play does encourage such preoccupation with issues but what is more compelling is how the two protagonists (or rather antagonists) take issue with each other. What rivets here is the way in which two people relate to each other (very badly). Someone once told me that politics starts when you put two people in a room together. I think that applies very well in this instance. The oscillation of power moves people to try to steady it towards their own advantage, and in OLEANNA, such attempts to do so come at the cost of human decency.
OLEANNA, originally scripted in 1992 by renowned American playwright, David Mamet in the aftermath of the famed sexual harassment battle between Anita Hill and Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, takes place entirely in the office of John, a middle-age professor who seems to have everything going for him; the prospect of tenure, the preparation for the purchase of a new and bigger house, a wife and son whom he loves. He calls one of his students, Carol, into his office to discuss her poor grades, which worries her greatly as she cannot afford to fail. She constantly tells him that she does not understand anything and John wants to help her. Yet throughout their discussion, John keeps getting interrupted by phone calls from his wife and he in turn repeatedly cuts off Carol from what she is saying, turning the topic of conversation back to his own interests. Carol goes through her spiel about wanting to learn but is defeated by her own stupidity and does not understand anything that John says in class. John wants to help fix her problems and in the process tells her an analogy with reference to copulation, that higher education structures are criminal, artificial and meaningless, that he likes her and she will get an A if she comes to see him everyday in his office after class, and finally he puts his arm around her when she is on the verge of breaking down - an action she violently rejects.
In the second
act, we find that Carol, with the support of her "Group", has
filed a complaint with the tenure committee, charging that John is sexist,
elitist and racist, having sexually harassed her and made a joke of her
efforts. When Carol tries to leave, John, wanting to talk it through further,
tries to physically restrain her but the act ends with Carol running away
with calls for help. By the third act, John has already lost his job and
his new house, and Carol is back with new charges and a bargain in exchange
- she is charging him with attempted rape but will drop the suit should
he recommend the banning of certain books in the college including one
of his own. John asks Carol to leave as his wife calls but Carol's asking
him not to call his wife "Baby" brings the show to its climax
as John loses it and socks Carol, eventually raising a chair and threatening
to hit her with it but stopping himself in time.
Someone once told me that politics starts when you put two people in a
room together. I think that applies very well in this instance. The oscillation
of power moves people to try to steady it towards their own advantage,
and in OLEANNA, such attempts to do so come at the cost of human decency.
Carol on the other hand, moves from an unsure undergraduate to a manipulator with a carefully planned political agenda in a few days. Such incredible progression with little motivation results in a Carol that appears like a flat cut-out (unless she was callously feigning naiveté). If Carol seems a symbolic archetype, this only corroborates the fact that her education has been a form of hazing. But Carol is more likely the manipulated. She is a weak individual with little personality, requiring the support of a larger group to ratify what she does and thinks. Her finicky nature is seen in her excessive, copious note taking, incapable of synthesis and analysis. She says she desires not revenge but understanding, yet it is she who fails to understand and be understood. Judy Ngo's presence is more diminutive than Low's but I like that she keeps Carol's insecurities and tentativeness throughout and does not become maniacal. Ngo rightly plays Carol with a nervous energy and a big chip on her shoulder from being slighted for her alleged stupidity because she is a loose cannon. John is right about Carol when he says she is angry and anger is that one thing that makes us dangerous.
The set design by Sebastian Zeng is unimaginative. Staging the play in the chapel of the old St Joseph's Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum) enhanced the feel of an "oppressive" though hallowed institution, but I must say that the tacky painted-on bookshelves made for superfluous background scenery. And I am not sure if the play required a very naturalistic setting to be effective, because the table, phone and chairs were the only items really necessary.
At the end
of the day, I found myself laughing at the follies of two equally culpable
adults who could not seem to acquit themselves responsibly. Their actions
were not appropriate for the problems and the person they addressed, and
the punishment meted out was not commensurate with the actions perpetrated.
There was no perceivable sexual overture made, but if sexual harassment
can be defined just upon how one's actions displease the other party,
then the doors are wide open. This play is less about sexual harassment
or gender politics than personal vendettas. OLEANNA reminds us that we
should watch our own behaviour because once the deed is done, even with
the best of intentions, we can be dragged off to hell for it. As Carol
says: "I am not interested in your feelings or your motivations,
but your actions."