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He said, she said
An intense Oleanna at the Firehouse
By David Mamet. Directed by Cait Calvo. With Luis Astudillo and Melissa Penick. At Firehouse Theater through May 9.

The more times I see David Mametís oft-staged Oleanna, the more Iím amazed that he wasnít indicted for character abuse. His one-sided indictment of politically correct feminist-style "thinking" is ending a successful run at the Firehouse Theater. And itís a terrific production, intense but not shrill ó a pained shout rather than a scream.

Three short acts, like brief rounds in a boxing match, dance here toward an inevitable TKO. The ring is the office of a college professor. First we see a painfully self-conscious student (Melissa Penick) begging her pedantic but concerned professor (Luis Astudillo) to not give her a failing grade. Then they meet again, and now heís the one doing the begging. You see, she was able to describe their first encounter in such a way that he is now up on charges, his prospective tenure in jeopardy. Lastly, the status roles are completely reversed: he is at her mercy, and she is the power-maddened monster that she accuses him of unknowingly being.

The actors and director Cait Calvo make this all gripping to watch, even if you know where itís heading. Mametís trademark staccato dialogue is nowhere more fragmented, and difficult to deliver, than here. Thatís especially so in the first act, when she is halting and inarticulate and he is constantly interrupting her half-formed sentences. As with Harold Pinter, the timing in a Mamet play requires verbal choreography.

Penick succeeds in making plausible that the shrinking violet of the beginning is the man-eating Audrey (you know, Little Shop of Horrors) of the end. Thatís a tough job, since the student isnít really self-aware, but only thinks she has become so. Penick does this by keeping a thread of recognizable humanity running through the characterís changes, even by the time Mamet has made her diction as hifalutin ("I speak not for myself") as the professorís. For his part, Astudillo carefully walks a fine line, making the academic self-satisfied but not smug, wordy but not phony, seeing the student as a pedagogical challenge but also honestly caring. This whole house of cards depends on our liking this guy.

Mamet was afraid to make the professor a bad person, even a little. What a shame. That could have provided the sort of ambiguous complexity that makes for discussing human beings afterwards instead of just characters. The worst legitimate indictment against the professor is that he is condescending, pompous, and uses big words, saying "transpired" when "occurred" will do. (Itís possible to play the professor as actually trying to seduce the student, as she accuses him of doing after speaking about the meeting with her "group." After all, he puts a comforting arm around her shoulders and says he will give her an A if she meets with him a few times in his office. But that would destroy the delicate balance. Two hard-driving villains in a two-person play would cancel each other out.)

Correspondingly, the off-stage campus feminist movement in evidence here is a bunch of bloody-clawed harpies, out for revenge, not truth. They want books banned from the curriculum, the professorís textbook included. Sure, there were plenty of such anti-intellectual, fascist-minded students striding campuses when Oleanna was first staged in 1992. Some by now are even entrenched in faculty positions. But without some of their dead-on anti-patriarchal assessments thrown into the argument here ó couldnít a more qualified female candidate be up for his tenure slot? ó this poor professor is being besieged by lethal cartoon characters.

Personal pathologies are either boring or painful to watch unfold because theyíre one-of-a-kind. We need nice, juicy social pathologies to sink our attention into, personal examples that represent wider culpability. This was obviously Mametís intent, but by making the feminist arguments so flimsy, the student became a cardboard stalking horse for his objections instead of a full person. Talk about objectifying women.

The playwright certainly is a clever craftsman, though. He propels the story by introducing a concern: the professor is in the nervous midst of buying a house, which depends on his announced tenure becoming official. By the end, this matter that was so important to him becomes trivial in the face of the dire straits he finds himself navigating. So from his opening words in the play, on the phone, he is in a lather, to change the metaphor: he is unaware that he will soon have to change horses mid-gallop and ride for his life.

Unlike Mametís masterworks, this time next century Oleanna will be regarded as a period cultural set-piece, read in baffled sociology classes rather than performed. Nevertheless, Astudillo and Penick make the academic exercise fascinating to watch.

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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