After seeing Oleanna for the first time, it’s a challenge to try to describe its effects in any meaningful way. Has it changed the way I view women, men, academia, relationships, privilege, and language? Yes. But finding the words to describe it… well, I’m at a loss. And the play? It’s infuriating, exhilerating, inspiring, difficult, breath-taking and exasperating. It’s also important.
David Mamet’s 1992 work is a two-hander that takes place in the office of a university professor. It offers us three different scenes, each with student Carol and teacher John. The first Act finds Carol coming to John for help with the course he’s teaching; from there, it moves into decidedly greyer areas that explore notions of power, privilege, position, and persuasion. As with so many of Mamet’s works, the language is deadly, sharp, occasionally sadistic, if always mesmerizing.
Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto opened their 13th season with Oleanna recently. Yowls about ‘that isn’t Canadian!‘ aside (really? in 2011? “World-class city”, remember!), it’s important to note that the award-winning troupe’s last Mamet production (of Glengarry Glen Ross) was so successful, it was remounted, and then extended to keep up with audience demand. The show was a tour-de-force of acting, production, and direction, all singing in a sweet symphonic harmony of cuss words, tossed papers, and overturned desks. Now, with Oleanna (running at the Young Centre through March 5th), they’ve yet again given Toronto audiences both a performance treat as well as a production that matches the nasty bite of Mamet’s monster of controversy. Brav-f*cking-oh, as the snappish playwright might write.
A big part of the production’s appeal, along with designer Teresa Przybylski’s fascinatingly crooked set and director Laszlo Marton’s masterful direction, is the acting. Soulpepper co-founder Diego Matamoros plays John, with equal parts pity, fury, ignoble entitlement and patronizing candour. Actor Sarah Wilson brings fistfuls of fortitude, attitude, and deep, wide-eyed passion to her role as Carol.
Their onstage exchanges are quietly disturbing and brilliantly explosive, building from small hand grenades to a full-on Dresden-style bombing. You’ll leave the theatre devastated -which is exactly as it should be.
Sarah and I recently exchanged ideas about Carol, the play, and the power struggle therein. It’s fascinating to read her insights, even if you haven’t seen (or heard, or read) Oleanna; the ideas about privilege, language, high education, confidence, and expectations around female behaviour are especially thought-provoking not just within the context of higher education, but the worlds of finance, law, development, media, and even (gulp) the arts.
How did you think of Oleanna prior to your being offered the role?
I’d read Oleanna in theatre school, but I think it was in a flurry of play-reading, because all I really remembered was that it was controversial, that there was a great female part, and that there was a fight. So, not much history, but not much baggage either.
Your role in Oleanna is so different from the other roles I’ve seen you do. Is it exhausting to play? or energizing? A bit of both?
I find this play requires a lot of energy, but it’s about focus, not athleticism. I remember rehearsing Act 1 and just praying that we’d move the heck on to Act II. I mean, we’d be doing it all day, so that was certainly part of it, but Act III, once Carol has a cause and responsibility, can absolutely be energizing in a way that I don’t think Act 1 ever will be.
What sorts of things did Laszlo tell you to keep in mind in terms of approaching Carol? What sorts of things did you think were important?
In Act 1 (the first meeting), Laszlo was very clear that he didn’t want Carol to be self-pitying about not understanding the work. That she thinks that her inability to understand the course is his failure as a teacher, not hers as a student, since she’s done all the work he told her to do. It makes the communication gap between them much larger, since they’re now starting from different places: he thinks she’s failing as a studen, she thinks he’s failing as a teacher.
In parts of Act III, he’d tell me to be “sharp as hell.” That she doesn’t need to be gentle. Any time I softened at particular points, wanting, I suppose, to make it sting less for John, he’d tell me not to…she doesn’t have to be nice, she’s right. And she’s got a responsibility to her group, which is a far greater thing than either of their feelings. It’s interesting, because I wonder if something people react to about Carol is that she’s not sweet. She’s rarely charming, she’s not flirtatious…she just doesn’t act the way she’s ‘supposed’ to, in a way that might make her opinions more palatable. What if, as she told him that her group suffers like this every day, she cried? Would that make him understand? Why?
And we would talk about how she’s not evil, she’s not at all villainous… she’s right. Which was of course, extremely important to me. She says, “I don’t want revenge, I want understanding“, and I believe her. I understand her. Hell, I love her. I just wanted to make sure that I understood her, so I could do my best to act well.
There’s an obvious structure of Him-Talking-A-Lot that goes to Her-Talking-A-Lot. How much do you think this unseen “group” she alludes to plays a role in her moving into pseudo-confidence and articulation? How much of it is genuine?
Carol’s speech does change dramatically from Act 1 to Act III, and I think that’s largely due to confidence. Confidence transforms a person. You look different, people see you differently, you sound different…once she finds the language to describe what it is that angers her so deeply, what she feels is so unjust, she uses it. In Act I, she wasn’t able to name it. It was foggy, and then, it was not. There are still words she doesn’t know, of course, because she’s new to this. She doesn’t know the word ‘indictment’, and she’s not ashamed to say so, which I think shows real confidence.
Again, it’s interesting to wonder what the difference would be if she said (like I very well might), “Sorry, sorry, can you tell me what indictment means? Sorry.” I don’t think I’d call what she has pseudo-confidence. I think it’s genuine. She’s doing her very best at this language game with a man who’s been playing it a lot longer than her.
As far as her group, it’s an interesting question. We talked a lot in rehearsal about how really, in the end, they’re both losers within these systems that provides some with privilege at the expense of others. The school is a system, patriarchy is a system, and her group may very well be another one, although I don’t think they’re a bunch of crazed students trying to take down John and any similar colleagues. I think they’re a group which shares the same hope and rage, and is trying to make the world better. Maybe she’s being used, maybe not. Maybe every system must be flawed. But I think as far as her confidence, it’s genuine.
Why do you think Carol has so much anger toward the Professor?
There’s a quote I came across that says, “Some people are born on third base and spend all their lives thinking they hit a triple.” Being from a lower economic class than most of her students, and certainly of John, Carol is aware he’s been handed things which she has worked very hard for. That’s all fine, and very possibly inescapable, but it’s infuriating that he doesn’t know it.
To be able to say that higher education is a joke is a privilege. He’s so blase about rules and how stupid rules are because he’s the one that gets to make them up whenever he damn well pleases, and ignore them whenever they don’t suit him. If you are not quite so economically or geographically lucky, you have to bust your ass to follow these rules, and then to be told they’re worthless… that makes you a chump. Every time he puts down higher education, he’s calling her, and everyone like her, a sucker.
Carol’s not a kid who was taken to the museum on weekends. There wasn’t a family ski pass. She’s just had to work harder than others, but then, after she’s busted her ass according to the rules (she says ‘You have no idea what it cost me to get to this school’), he changes them. Just because he likes her. It’s that easy for him. All because of privilege, “and he won’t know it.” I swear, in many ways I think Carol’s incredibly patient and generous with him. I’d try to stab him in the neck with a pen half a minute into Act II.
My point is that it’s a larger issue for Carol. He said and did what she complains about because of this basic belief he has that he is entitled. And his entitlement means she, and her group, get thrown under the bus on a daily basis. And so she asks, “What gives you the right?” Which is, I think, more than fair.
There is a strong hint that Carol is a survivor of sexual assault. How much did you try to fill in the blanks of her past?
So hard to say. I mean, it’s never specified, but do I think she’s been through some kind of sexual assault? Yeah, I do. Hell, statistically, it’s very, very possible. She reacts very strongly to being touched, twice. As far as filling in the blanks, it was more important for me to think about money, and what a college education means to someone whose family doesn’t have any. What enormous pressure that is…she begins some sentences, like, “How can I go back and tell them the grades that I…” which, like all the other half sentences, I needed to finish.
You’ve worked with Diego now a few times -did that make working with him here? That fight at the end is super-intense…
This is my third show with Diego, and I guess we’ve known each other several years now. It made everything easier. We’ve seen each other work, we know how Laszlo works, and it just means that in a two-hander like this, the process (both rehearsals and after opening) can go further than it otherwise might. In a play like this where there’s so much intensity, it’s really nice to be able to be relaxed with the other actor.
How much do you think Mamet wanted people to take “sides” -or at least react This seems like a play that wants a strong reaction…
I’m just guessing, of course, but I think that if Mamet wanted you to take sides, it’s just so he could pull the rug out from under you a minute later. I mean, there are clearly two (or three, or four, depending how you count ’em) big red buttons pushed in Act III, which I think are absolutely there to make you react very strongly.
But then, you judge, you make your decision about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, and there’s that last button, and who do you cheer for then? Who is right, and why? And what gives you the right to decide? It’s this endless, maddening string of questions. That’s my favourite thing about the play, really. Anything you think about it…whether you love it, hate it, love or hate Carol, love or hate John…you have to ask yourself why, and you’re confronted with how blatantly your opinion is shaped by your own privilege, or lack of it.