By D. A. Blackburn
The Breathe Art Theatre Project breathes fire with its latest offering, “Oleanna,” delivering a scorching social commentary, and a production sure to spark discussion among intellectuals.
Written by David Mamet, “Oleanna” was born a catalyst for debate when it premiered in 1992. It is a polarizing work, which seems more an exercise in academic pursuit than an evening of fun at the theater. Structurally, Mamet’s play is simple – a two-act, two-hour, two-player argument. “Oleanna,” however, is not a simple work. Its true genius rests in the way that it relies on viewers’ preconceived beliefs, and their perceptions of the drama, to divide an audience. The essential question posed is: “What constitutes sexual harassment?” In “Oleanna,” Mamet’s clever script ensures that no matter which side you choose, you are probably right.
The play’s premiere was a near coup of timing. Appearing on the heels of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill sexual harassment scandal, “Oleanna” rode the coattails of public discourse to successful productions off Broadway, in London and as a major motion picture.
Though Breathe Art’s revival of the work lacks this element of real-world context, it remains a thought provoking presentation, thanks in large part, to an exceptional team of cast and director.
Hilberry alum Aaron T. Moore tackles the role of John, a hypocritical, self-aggrandizing college professor striving to acquire his tenure and a new home for his family. Katie Galazka, also a WSU grad, plays opposite Moore as Carol, a young student failing John’s course.
The work plays out in John’s office, in meetings where Carol seeks individual instruction, and instead receives what she believes to be John’s inappropriate attention.
Neither is a particularly likeable character, but both are played well. Moore is able to channel the spirit of the snobbish intellectual with uncanny ease, and costumed by Kevin T. Young, he is the ideal image of the average college professor. Galazka, too, is able to capture the essence of her character, both physically and emotionally. Moore and Galazka share a deep understanding of the drama, and appropriately, no on-stage chemistry. Together, as is intended in this work, they are a grating pair, unable to strike even the slightest connection as teacher and student.
“Oleanna” is a show where direction must be issued with a heavy hand, and in this respect, Demetri Vacratsis is the production’s real star. His exquisite blocking moves characters around the stage with grace. Vacratsis is able to draw from his performers a very realistic argumentative quality, pushing the drama through a range of emotions and misunderstandings at what feels like a breakneck pace.
Breathe Art’s staging and sound designs are function over form, but both work well in the intimate space of Detroit’s Furniture Factory. And crafty lighting work by Sergio Forest pulls the audience into the drama, rather than just Mamet’s heady dialogue.
In choosing “Oleanna,” Breathe Art Theatre Project has produced a work which cannot be called enjoyable. It is discomforting, but that’s Mamet’s point. In staying true to it, they’ve given us a play that stands out as a unique and insightful experience for the theater fan.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Breathe Art Theatre Project at two locations: The Furniture Factory, 4126 3rd St., Detroit (Fri.-Sat., through Feb. 16, plus Sun., Feb.10; 313-831-1939); then Mackenzie Hall, 3277 Sandwich St., Windsor (Fri.-Sat., Feb. 22-23; 519-255-7600). Tickets: $20. http://www.breathearttheatre.com