>oleanna by the theatre practice

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 7 aug 2002
>time: 8 pm
>venue: the singapore art museum auditorium
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


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. '

Much of the dramatic spark comes from the deliberate contrast of two personalities; one open and the other closed in. John seems to be expressing too much and Carol too little. Whilst the mere reading of Mamet's lines may have allowed the play to be more sympathetic towards John, Jeffrey Low's portrayal staves this sympathy off with a high-handed and self-conceited John, perhaps a gesture towards making his characterization more ambiguous. Underlying Low's John is a tense fastidiousness, heard in the patterns of his vocal inflexions and fussy enunciations. Low's professed wish to help Carol in the second act after she accuses him smacks plainly of obnoxiousness. Despite his deep cynicism about the education system, what may have come out as honesty in his still wanting to stay in his job (because of his love for teaching, the security and privileges his teaching position brings to his family) is withered to hypocrisy by Jeffrey's inability to bring across John's over-earnestness. Low has good stage presence and he uses it well to establish John's esteemed position but self-consciousness in an actor makes a character contrived, forced and ultimately not very likable. There is no doubt John is very persuasive in his rhetorical critiques of higher education and that his role is to provoke Carol, to share with her his views and not dictate what she thinks. But his good intentions are delivered to the wrong person in this case as Carol thinks he is deliberately confounding her with difficult terminology and throwing the efforts of students trying to learn into disarray.

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.

This Chinese translation done by director Nelson Chia is competent albeit sober, yet I question why Chia has aimed for a straight translation and not a rewrite or adaptation, save for the doing away of some American cultural references. It was a chance for Ng to pose his personal take and vision beyond the conventional, literal or textual bearings. The original script by Mamet is wordy, driven by dialogue and has few stage directions, allowing room for open-endedness. The director in OLEANNA becomes the judge, admitting circumstantial evidence that will skew our vision with the twitch of a brow or a slight shift of the mis-en-scene. The pivotal line here is Carol's: "What has led you to this place? Not your sex. Not your race. Not your class. YOUR OWN ACTIONS."

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."