Who among us will ever forget the pubic hair on the Coke can? Back when Congress was reviewing Clarence Thomas's appointment to the Supreme Court, former co-worker Anita Hill claimed that the judge had sexually harassed her, in part, by placing the unsightly follicle on her beverage container. And after delivering a litany of his other offenses, she appeared to have him by the short ones. But then, of course, the affirmative-action opponent let loose with cries of "high-tech lynching" and got himself confirmed.
The hearings resulted in two unfortunate legacies: an unabashed right-wing ideologue sitting on the highest court and, well, this play. It is said that David Mamet wrote Oleanna as a response to the Hill/Thomas hearings, and it makes sense. Mamet has dissected the modus operandi of con artists and lowlife salesmen, and in Oleanna, the con game is higher education, and the lowlife is a "femi-Nazi" straight from Rush Limbaugh's fevered nightmares.
The plot stretches credibility to the screaming point in its desire to show how the most benign of words and gestures can be misinterpreted. Carol, a confused and failing student, visits the office of John, her education class professor. Even though John is due to meet his wife and realtor to close on their new house, he indulges Carol's insipid frustrations ("I don't understand what's going on in class!" she whines. "I don't understand your book!").
In spite of increasingly urgent calls from his wife, John massages Carol's plummeting self-esteem with philosophical ramblings and responds to her desperate desire for a passing grade with a promise: He'll give Carol an A if she will meet with him for tutoring. He even touches her gently on the shoulders to show his concern.
But in Act 2, Carol has mistaken John's soft spot for a hard-on and has filed a grievance with the college, accusing him of sexual harassment. A dutiful note-taker, she throws all of John's words back at him verbatim, but in a new context in which the kindly teacher is transformed into a craven tormentor. Her grade fixation a distant memory, Carol now represents an unidentified campus group (an evil feminist spore colony, no doubt) that is supporting her cause. By the end of the play, the unlikely gives way to the unbelievable in a violent confrontation that shocks less than it annoys.
Instead of being an exploration of the power games people play with words, this one-note performance of Oleanna is more of a screed against uppity women. Director Gregory Vovos allows Meg Santisi to play Carol at a fairly steady rant, either sniveling or sneering. Mark Cipra brings a donnish warmth to John, but he should be more offhand and glib at the beginning. His early intensity takes the steam out of the power flip-flop in Act 2 and leaves both characters nowhere to go.
While this production is flawed, the Boulevard Theater (a Shaker Heights community troupe) is to be commended for taking on fare vastly more challenging than, say, another revival of Love Letters. As for Mamet's take on sexual harassment, the feminist viewpoint, albeit twisted and burlesqued, once more serves as a punching bag for defenders of the status quo. And that's getting pretty damn tiresome.
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