The student sits, quiet and timid, not sure how to address her professor who is engaged in an energetic phone conversation. She clutches her books tightly, until finally they enter into a dialogue. Their conversation is almost too comfortable, like lines from a movie. The concerned teacher calls his pupil to him in an attempt to help her, in an attempt to better her. He offers her a second chance; the very thing we wish our teachers do when we feel that we have done wrong.
So begins David Mamet's play Oleanna. The story centers around a power struggle between two forces, both of which invariably take over at different point during the performance. It becomes the meek against the strong, the dominant fronted against the passive, the student against the teacher, and vice versa. This ideal is impressively portrayed by junior Lisa Ward as the student and senior Ben Esner as the professor.
Directed by sophomore Matthew Van Winkle, Oleanna builds steadily in intricacy and intensity, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat throughout. The play deals with justice, and with the inherent selfishness of human nature. It also sheds light on the human tendency to misconstrue meaning, and to pick and choose what certain words and actions mean to us, and as well as their original intent. The professor, in the beginning, attempts to help his student. The power shifts, revealing how the timid sometimes have their own agendas as well. The unsuspecting, overbearing professor is taught a lesson by his own student, and the onlooker sees the weaknesses in those who are often perceived to be strong.
The director, Van Winkle, expressed his satisfaction with the play for both its form and content. "It manages to be as dramatic as larger-scale plays by staying pure to what is important in drama: a drastic change brought about by satisfying means," he said.
What rumors have said is true: Oleanna received only $300 from OSTA, and is using the bare minimum for stage space and props. However, these sparse elements are what make the play most effective. As the play goes on, the props, even the stage space, fade into the background, as the audience becomes more involved in the relations between the two actors.
Ward and Esner give engaging performances. "The actors are superb, there are points during rehearsals where I spontaneously smile. They know this play and understand their craft very well. The energy flow between them is a sight to behold," said Van Winkle. Esner becomes the middle-aged, pompous professor, and Ward embodies the timid and shy student , until their roles are switched. Even then we see the love/hate relationship the two share, for the student returns every time the professor requests her. With this switch in power, the onlooker sees the vulnerable and the strong sides of these two characters.
The plot of Oleanna is fast-paced, although there isn't action at every moment. There are some definite slow spots, and many intense moments are interrupted by phone rings. The watcher is often left hanging at what seems the most crucial moment. The dialogue is sometimes forced and not natural, as if the characters are too proper. The student fluctuates from not understanding some words that her professor says, to using large, distinctive words to make her point. It is at times confusing, and at other times unreal, and almost too extreme.
However, without this sense of extremity, Oleanna would not be the same. Even in the slower parts, attention is held to a fine point in anticipation of what will come next - for the play is not slow for very long. There is no time wasted in getting to the message of the play - it is blunt and to the point, in acting style, movements, loud noises and voices. The lighting is sudden and simple, keeping the spectator in a state of shock and anticipation. It is a very raw performance, but at the same time it is evident how much work went into the making of the whole production.
Oleanna is a violent blast of fresh air in the OSTA department. It leaves the audience in an aggravated state, one that makes the individual stop to think and consider their own motives in life, and weather or not they would ever take things that far in any given situation. It is a performance very well done, and should, in its final stage, be well worth the $2 admission. Van Winkle and camp have done an excellent job with this little play, and it is definitely worth seeing.
Oleanna runs this weekend in Warner studio #2, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 22, April 30, 1999
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