Oleanna: Sexual Politics 101B

Expression Productions recently opened its production of Oleanna, written by David Mamet and directed by Andrey Esterlis, at Royce Gallery, one of the newer venues for theater in San Francisco. Royce Gallery is clean and comfortable and, true to its name, currently features work on its walls by artist Don Keenan. As one of Mamet’s later works, Oleanna invokes the subtle play of power, privilege and sexual politics when John, a male college professor, and Carol, his young, struggling, female student, exchange points of view within the confines of his office.

As the lights come up on John’s (Andrey Esterlis) reasonably well appointed office, John is talking with his wife on the telephone while Carol (Melissa O’Keefe) sits in a chair at his desk, waiting. John’s luxuriously uncluttered desk occupies the center of the stage, resting atop a Persian-style rug. John is tastefully attired in slacks and tie. The coat rack behind him accentuates a sense of warmth and comfort. John is dealing with escrow of the home he and his wife are purchasing now that he has been approved for tenure. He is anxious to complete the call so he can focus on his student meeting. Carol meanwhile sits in silence.

Esterlis’ John brilliantly sports the signature qualities Mamet imbues on male characters. Immersed in rapid-fire dialogue, John lifts the intellectual level of their conversation into the professorial domain at a clip, inviting brisk, scholarly debate. O’Keefe’s Carol, by contrast, is confrontational, whether by nature or by influence is not clear. At her most receptive, she takes a coy and manipulative stand to John’s torrentially heady postulations. It isn’t long before John unwittingly succumbs to his fate, all the while obliviously chasing his intellectual tail.

While Esterlis’ characterization of John is spot on, both actors strike a singular tone in their portrayals that remains unchanged, more glaring in Carol's testy monotone than in John's frenetic accommodations to her. Carol is as combative at the outset as she is at the end. John similarly continues to spout intellectual postulations without seeing the bigger picture or realizing genuine humility, though each has reached a very different point by the end of the play. The unflinchingly intellectual dynamic muffles the dramatic impact of Mamet’s words and precludes the view that would otherwise be apparent in John’s fall from power and privilege.

Carol finally asserts to John in the second act that she “came here to instruct you”, an otherwise powerful statement that rings hollow as no transition occurred to bring her to such victory believably. These words would have been far more effective had she been portrayed as struggling and confused at the outset and had John, in turn, become broken and confused at the end.

Oleanna plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. through November 21, 2009, at Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco, CA 94110. Tickets are available online at www.oleannasf.com or by telephone at 866-811-4111.

- Eryka M. Fraczek
Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle