Art Centre Theatre
Director - Ben Hall
Stage Manager - Branson White
Costume Design - Cast and Crew
Set Designer - Ben Hall
Sound Designer - Danny Maccheato
Lighting Designer - Branson White
John - Jason Leyva
Carol - Erica Harte
Reviewed Performance 2/18/2012
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Is David Mamet's play, Oleanna, about political correctness, sexual harassment, power, lost utopia, male-female miscommunication, or something else? How many charged topics can there be in one show? Well, the audience seemed willing to debate about many of them at intermission and after the show at Arts Fifth Avenue on Saturday evening.
Everyone, including the ladies selling drinks behind the counter, had an opinion about David Mamet's provocative two-person drama. Although the company producing the show, L.I.P. Service and Big Nose Productions is new to the DFW theater scene, they have created a seasoned and spicy performance of Mamet's challenging play. I applaud director Ben Hall for his rendering of this drama that dripped with fanaticism. Oleanna churns your insides and sets an egg beater to scrambling your thoughts about sexual harassment - in a good way.
Gasps, nervous laughter and vigorous clapping spewed from the small audience in the intimate gallery space. As I sat in the front row, my toes touched the base of the small stage. I could practically feel the wind of each bat of the characters' eyelashes. The academic setting of a college professor's office was simple and unobtrusive, exactly as it should be. Before the show began the folk song, "Oleanna" by Ditmar Meidel (1853), played with a male voice singing and a banjo strumming chords. The lyrics embellished the mood. "In Oleanna the women do all the work. If she doesn't work hard enough she takes a stick and gives herself a beating."
Arts Fifth Avenue partnered the play performance with an art exhibit by Lily Stapp-Courtney, an artist and scenic painter with Fort Worth roots. Ms. Stapp-Courtney displayed several of her painting styles including abstract and a kind of boxed pointillism. To appreciate one dramatic painting, I stood back and squinted to view the figure within the image.
The dynamic artwork coupled nicely with David Mamet's play which also cannot be taken at surface value. One must burrow deeply to infuse one's self with the many nuances of "Mamet Speak," a term coined for the bullet-speed interrupted dialogue style of Mamet's many award winning films and plays, such as Wag the Dog and The Verdict.
Taking a step or two back from reality to the abstract, the well known playwright drew an intriguing play that built in tension and incited the audience to tunnel through to truth. One is tempted to take the side of either the cerebral professor John, played by Jason Leyva, or the callow Carol, played by Erica Harte. But whomever you side with--you are wrong. No right or wrong exists in Oleanna, only questions that erupt at the close of the play with ballistic strength.
The two flamboyant characters were volcanic in different ways. There was nothing truly demure about the outwardly naive character whom Erica Harte magnificently portrayed in the student Carol. In the first act she was a dormant volcano with eyes that rolled and stared with quiet but foreboding effect. Carol jotted notes whenever her professor said something that could possibly be construed as detrimental, yet often innocuously declared, "I don't understand." She became cold and measured by the third act with a stiff-back posture and a purposeful voice. Carol left her backpack behind and switched to a black canvas briefcase as she embraced her attorney-like temperament that seemed to come from the encouragement of her "Group," an organization she confessed that she represented.
Her counterpart, the professor John was played by twenty-year theatre addict, John Leyva, who created Leyva's Independent Productions sixteen years ago, a company that offers alternatives for mainstream theatre. As the professor, Leyva's emotions went from mild irritation to a beautifully built eruption of rage. In the final scene his emotional lava flowed when Carol advised him, "Don't call your wife baby."
I believe the playwright wished to convey the dangers of built-up resentment. His characters showed that although we don't always mean to be harassing someone, our tone, word choice, and repetitions can take the wind out of another's sails of self esteem. John declared to Carol, concerning her grievances to the tenure committee, "They will dismiss your complaint. They `will' dismiss it!" At that point the student/professor relationship accelerated to a bizarre implosion.
The setting, the costumes, the lighting, every aspect of this production played a cacophony of metaphors in a symphony of tension. The costumes reflected the balance of power and loss of internal security. In the first act John dressed in a casual sweater and tweed slacks, and Carol in baggy unmemorable clothes. In the second act the professor wore a suit as he became the defendant. The lawyer-like student was dressed in formal slacks and blazer as she accused John of sexual harassment.
In the third act, Carol added a scarf tied like a man's tie to her outfit. She stepped up her charge. "You tried to rape me, according to the law." What about according to the truth? John's tie dangled and his shirttails hung out as he stammered, "I don't understand." The audience knew exactly how much touching we'd witnessed.
The phrase "I don't understand" was Carol's mantra in the first act, but the professor now adopted it. The balance of power was flipped as the confused victim role passed from one character to the other. I had trouble truly sympathizing with Carol even though her professor eventually towered over her in anger. Her final comment was chilling.
John's demeanor certainly did deteriorate as the conflict worsened. Leyva developed this alteration like a tornado slowly forming in the clouds. When his anger touched ground, he was engulfed by it.
Observing these two actors at work in their craft was fascinating and highly entertaining. Even though the drama was heavy and dark, the intellectual stimulation made up for it ten-fold.
This play was chocked full of interruptions--the phone rang at every climax and each character rarely allowed the other to complete a sentence. Yet I hope you will allow this show to interrupt your life and attend before it closes its short run on February 26th. Even if you are not a theatre connoisseur, you'll be mesmerized by this gripping play with twists and mind manipulations galore.
L.I.P Service & Big Nose Productions
Arts Fifth Avenue, 1628 5th Avenue, Fort Worth, TX 76104
Plays through February 26th
Limited run. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm.
Adult language and situations are not suitable for children under sixteen without parental supervision.
Tickets are priced $15.
For tickets and information call 817-923-9500 or go to www.artsfifthavenue.org.