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Posted by Mike on 6/21/2009 to That's Entertainment

My wife and I happened to be in the area on Friday night and had free tickets so we went to see the play “Oleanna” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Before we went, I did a quick check online to see what it was about, and could not find much (because I spelled it “oleana” by mistake) except that it was a “test of wills” between a male professor (Bill Pullman) and a female student (Julia Stiles).

We were surprised to find two such well known movie actors in a play, and more surprised when we found out that they were the only actors in the play.  One simple setting (the professor’s office), and a few quick breaks (to advance time and allow for a change of clothing), but no intermission.  But what was more telling, as I looked through the program while waiting for the play to start, was that there was not a word of mention in the program as to what the play was about, but the list of credits included a “fight director”.    Clearly, a twist was going to develop.

The play starts off a bit slowly, which we later learn is simply setting the stage for what is to be revealed later.   Basically, the female student has her own unique perspective on the conversation and actions in the first set, totally in conflict with what the professor said, did and intended, and what the audience witnesses.  As we go through subsequent sets, her distorted interpretation of events heightens the conflict until she baits reality to coincide with her imaginative world.   And yeah, we see why there is a fight director.

The acting is terrific, and the development of the story line works pretty well, too.  My only complaint is that the dialogue for the student was probably inconsistent with her mental state.  She spoke too proper and sophistocated, even when angry.  But she frequently asked the professor to explain the words he used, and admonished him for speaking in upscale terms when simple words would do, a problem she actually seemed to have even more than he did.  And maybe that was Mamet’s point with regards to her character.   Still, it seemed unnatural to hear her yelling a line like “What is it that you wish of me?” rather than something like “What do you want me to do?”

As I watched the student “recall” earlier conversations during the middle part of the play, I flashed back to a situation that had occurred to me in the corporate world about 12 years ago.    And I emphasized with the professor’s exasperated frustration.   I had employee sue me, my boss and the company we worked for…for $10 million for sex and age discrimination and harassment, assault, and a laundry list of other things.  As I read through my employee’s complaint when we were served, I was dumbfounded as to where she was coming from and how she could have so misconstrued reality.    It was so far from the truth, it did not even deserve a response.  And in Oleanna, the professor finds himself in a similar position.

In my case, during the deposition, it was clear to all parties that the employee was nuts.  Her attorney quickly moved for a quick and nominal settlement (she’d worked for the company for about 25 years, and was willing to just go away with a basic severance package and a letter of recommendation).   She’d made a side living off of suing people, and had evidently decided to retire from the business world with a lawsuit against her employer.  Fortunately, the truth was stronger than her lies and it did not work out as she hoped.    But in Oleanna, it’s just the professor and the student, and he therefore does not have the benefit of others to recognize the obviousness of the truth.  And therefore fantasy escalated into reality.

My wife and I both enjoyed the play.  Of course, it’s always easier to enjoy something when it’s free.  But she didn’t fall asleep like she sometimes does at theatrical productions.  So it was definitely engrossing enough to keep her attention.

Mike Lee