Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Oleanna
New Repertory Theatre
Review by Sarah Parro

Also see Nancy's review of Fun Home and Josh's review of A Guide for the Homesick


Johnny Lee Davenport and Obehi Janice
Photo by Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures
David Mamet's Oleanna premiered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1992. Although it premiered a quarter of a century ago, the play is set in "the present," and Mamet's visceral exploration of gender dynamics, power imbalances, and sexual assault remains relevant to this day. New Repertory Theatre's production, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, is not the sort of show to see if you're looking for a fun evening out. It's challenging and thought-provoking theatre that will have you listening closely, watching intently and considering the events that play out on stage for some time after the final bows.

In his book "True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor," Mamet writes, "There is no character. There are only lines upon a page." This language-centric belief comes through in full force in Oleanna, a play in which truth, justice, intent, even criminal violence all come down to the words spoken and the context in which they are spoken. Only two characters appear in the play: John, a male professor, played in this production by Johnny Lee Davenport; and John's female student Carol, played by Obehi Janice. Both actors pour intensity and emotional vigor into their characters and provide human lifelines amidst the complex content.

At the top of the play, Carol has come to visit John during office hours to discuss her struggles in his class. The exact nature of her difficulties and the specifics of the course are not fully revealed; the dialogue of the first act consists primarily of interruptions and half-finished sentences, indicative of a mutual lack of understanding that seems to plague the characters. Because there is so little context given in terms of the characters' history or relationship, we must grasp onto their words to try and interpret deeper meaning. What begins as a student seeking help from her professor escalates to accusations of assault, and Mamet's writing constantly shifts the ground beneath his characters. The power dynamic shifts over the course of the play, too, as does the physical set, which rotates and partially fractures as the characters' opposing perspectives compete for authority (and our sympathies).

Davenport previously appeared in New Rep's Thurgood, The Whipping Man, and A House with No Walls. He won the Elliot Norton Award for Best Actor in Broke-ology (Lyric Stage Company) and was named Best Actor in 2011 by Boston Magazine. As John, Davenport gives a thoroughly human performance, conveying the professor's competing interests between helping his student, pleasing the tenure committee and managing his home life (we learn that he's trying to buy a new house for his family). Janice recently performed in New Rep's The Gift Horse, Out of the Mouths of Babes at Gloucester Stage Company, Love's Labour's Lost for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company) and Company One Theatre/American Repertory Theatre's We're Gonna Die, for which she won the IRNE Award for Best Solo Performance. Janice evolves Carol from timid and wary to confident, even domineering, as she is motivated by injustice, or at least perceived injustice, and everything rests on perception in this play.

Oleanna runs through November 5, 2017, in the Mainstage Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown MA. Tickets are $35-$65 dollars and may be purchased by calling the New Rep box office at 617-923-8487 or visiting newrep.org. Student, senior and group discounts are available, as are subscription packages.


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