19 May SJ Mercury News Review: TheatreFirst delivers crackling production of David Mamet's 'Oleanna'

(By Pat Craig,
Correspondent)   

TheatreFirst’s production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” the first in its intimate new digs at the Berkeley City Club, begins with the crackle and intensity of a wildfire and ratchets up from there.

“There ain’t no good guys. There ain’t no bad guys,” the old song says. “There’s only you and me and we both disagree.”

That, in a very big, loosefitting nutshell, is what the play is all about. Only in the case of “Oleanna,” everyone pretty much disagrees, and life becomes a brutal contact sport in this taut, beautifully directed piece of theatre.

In one corner is the college professor, played by TheatreFirst artistic director Michael Storm (who also directs the piece). In the other is his student, played by Josie Alvarez, who appears hopelessly young, obviously Latina and weighed down by an enormous backpack she wears during her first visit with the prof.

At first she seems like an overwhelmed college student who comes to her teacher’s office to talk about what he’s teaching his students, what his book (the class textbook) is all about and his assertion that college is something of a ritualized hazing.

He tries to explain things using the five-dollar words that are the stock in trade of college professors but not of students who are from a different, um, socioeconomic level. She wants him to explain it simply and bursts into tears when he is unable to simplify his own ideas.

The professor becomes a sort of a dorky, awkward Mr. Chips as he attempts to comfort her, finally embracing the young student. Before anything is settled, the man has to leave.

That ends the first act. When the lights come up again, the young woman is a bit more poised, carries a briefcase and has a bill of particulars ranging from charges of elitism and condescension to sexual harassment and rape.

The roles make an impressive flip-flop, and whatever you thought was going on originally suddenly becomes blood sport with the ruin of one or both people being the eventual end.

The story is absolutely stunning, and even if you’ve seen the show before, the TheatreFirst production offers a whole new take. Mamet has created a remarkable and occasionally frustrating play, in which a key role of the two actors is to make you draw the conclusions.

Both actors in this production show huge changes as the play progresses. For the young woman, it becomes a switch in purpose and power; for the professor, it’s a matter of fighting for the life he felt was finally falling into place.

But perhaps the best part of the show is the discussions (and arguments) that will run long into the night after the lights fade.

 

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Posted:   04/30/2012 01:47:55 PM PDT
Updated:   05/02/2012 11:04:04 AM PDT

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