After the Kathleen Turner/Michael Douglas 1989 film The War of the Roses, there was another treacherous battle of the sexes, that between a teacher and his student in David Mamet’s deeply disturbing but masterful 1992 play Oleanna.
Currently on stage at The Hub Arts Collective in Vernon, Oleanna treats its audience as a fly on the wall, observing the inner-workings of two people who really don’t understand each other at all.
And it’s while sitting there and watching this communication breakdown that rivets you despite the uncomfortable subject matter: how a young woman feels driven to accuse her teacher of sexual exploitation.
Unlike Roses, there are no dishes thrown here, but the words come out in a barrage of confusion, anger, and frustration. Yes, you will feel like pulling out your hair, but it’s worth the pain.
The rapid-fire Mamet dialogue, where interruptions and talking over each other is prominent, is a challenge, and one that actors Chris Froese and Ashley Plomp manage to survive in all its complexities.
As he did in his play-turned-film Glengarry Glen Ross, and even his film screenplays such as The Verdict, Mamet is an expert at making sad-sacks seek their comeuppance with little result.
However, in those projects, the protagonists were all men. Here, we have a female. And I have to say, and this is from a female perspective where we are to support our “sisters”, it made me flip-flop in both my pathos and disgust with her character.
At times, I wanted to yell at her to smarten up, and other times I wanted to put my arms around her, just as her professor, John, mistakenly does.
Plomp plays the student, Carol, with a palsied twitch that was rather distracting with all its herky-jerky movement, but when Mamet’s words tumbled out of her mouth with all its vitriol, especially in the last act, she mesmerized.
She would be an incredible horror film actress: her evil smile alone is still etched in memory.
Froese, for his part, has to deal with extremely heavy lifting. Not only does he talk half the time to unseen people that are his wife and realtor on his annoying cell phone (the only “update” made in this play), he has to restrain himself to play the pompous professor who is eventually unseated.
John is a pot about to boil over, and watching Froese reach the required temperature is a painful, yet fascinating experience. He does an admirable job, and his chemistry with Plomp is palpable.
It’s not pretty, or nice, but it will have you talking, and debating, for days afterwards.
Directed by The Hub’s Matt Brown, with a sparse, dark, but effective set, designed by Kristine Larsen, Oleanna is Vernon’s only entry into this year’s Okanagan Zone Drama Festival, being held at the Powerhouse Theatre next week.
It continues at The Hub tonight through to Saturday (tickets are at the Ticket Seller, www.ticketseller.ca) before moving to Powerhouse Theatre on Monday.
— Kristin Froneman is the arts-entertainment editor at The Vernon Morning Star.