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Oleanna – Center Theatre Group @ Mark Taper Forum – Theater Review


The alliance of power and the reasoning behind its abuse can be subtle just as easily as it can be overwhelming. The aspect that David Mamet as a playwright approaches seems to be within the aspect of what people not saying that seems to be the heightening conflict that eventually ends in ruin.

“Oleanna” as a piece has been seen both on stage and in film form. The jump cut reverie of how the play engages allows the audience to fill in the blanks and push it full circle. The key is making the ensuing manipulation seem organic and not unmotivated.

At the Mark Taper Form presented by the Center Theatre Group, a new incarnation of the play hits and misses on certain point but nevertheless is a very visceral interpretation of the text albeit with a few notes that don’t interconnect as well as they should.

With this play it is always about the two actors at play. The great thing about this forum is the ability for film actors with theater experience to be able to engage on this kind of outing sometimes while they are on other shows.

Bill Pullman plays John with a little bit of nervousness and less swagger which might have been counterintuitive to him as a performer but as the play enters its final scene seems to serve him well. In terms of Carol, Julie Stiles is very intrinsic in this role and I can see why she enjoys it. The beginning almost catches you off guard but you know what is coming. The manipulation requires an almost innocent attraction but based in wordplay, Mamet understands the concept of gender reversal. Despite evidence to the contrary as well to the former, nothing is innocent. There is always agendas playing themselves out.

Pullman is effective at pulling off the concept that a man who has use of words he doesn’t understand can’t quite talk his way out of his problem which is taken to severe points. Carol at times calls John “smooth” but that is an inconsistency. Pullman plays him fidgety. Stiles shines when she lets her vulnerability show even if it is false. When she breaks down in the first act, she cries which she never does onscreen. That is what makes her rebuke and ultimate schooling of John all the more intense. The motivation which was always a weakness of the play and the prey still glares but the final act where the physicality takes hold because the actors get into it.

The staging specifically the use of the shades is quite nice and allows for easy transitions while still using mimimal sound design. The structure of the set from most of the seats in the forum allows you to shift between perspectives of each actor. Seeing film actors in three dimensional space always offers a more interesting perspective of the craft but in a round like this was with sometimes the actors’ back to you is quite interesting while being also unconventional at times.

Ultimately “Oleanna” is a brisk essay on the element of education and the use of power. The writing even almost 20 years on still seems prevalent as the questiosn are universal although the forums seem to change especially with technology.

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