Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: 'Oleanna'

At Bristol Riverside Theatre, two actors bring alive a David Mamet play that's less about the story it tells than about issues behind the story. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Oleanna'

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David Barlow and Blair Baker in Bristol Riverside Theatre's production of "Oleanna."

By Howard Shapiro

There’s something insufferable about the way Blair Baker and David Barlow, who portray the two characters in David Mamet’s Oleanna, come across onstage at Bristol Riverside Theatre — and that is a high compliment.

Each plays an utterly unlikable and illogical person in this drama about power and revenge, and their performances are, in the end, stunning. I write in the end as a caveat: You have to give Oleanna a chance, because Mamet throws monkeywrenches your way.

In fact, the first half of Oleanna (the title of a Norwegian folk song about utopia) is full of them: streams of sentences that end before they reveal a subject; Mamet’s staccato (and here, unreal) dialogue; characters on the edge of ... well, we’re not sure.

Even in its second half, when Mamet spins the tale between professor and student around so that the student has all the power, Oleanna can be as hard to take as its characters: Now, the shy, self-loathing, intimidated, painfully dense student of the first act is aggressive, harsh, fully in charge. Where did she come from?

We first see the sad-sack Carol in the office of her prof, John, a pompous jerk who is fighting on the phone over details about the new house he’s buying because he’s finally getting tenure. He teaches an education class that questions the very values of education and its system, and can speak with a stiff emptiness: “I do not care to posit orthodoxy as a givenhood.” 

Carol is desperate about her grade, and in his unseemly way, John offers to help. Though virtually everything he says is ambiguous, there’s no misinterpreting his soothing her when she breaks down over — well, we don’t know because John is continually interrupted by his phone. It’s clear though, that he’s attempting only a gesture of comfort when he pats the tearful Carol's shoulder.

Is he a sexual harasser? That’s what Oleanna considers, plus a lot more: the relationship between powerful, respected people and those not so enfranchised, and between their aspirations and their grasp, and the effect of so-called remedies that may provide some balance. As a play that defines these issues, Oleanna is an unqualified success; as a play that defines itself, not so good. We get extremes and bald contrivance. What is Carol’s real motive? What is her teacher's real sin?

Oleanna seems to ask whether those questions matter in a system of checks and balances that doesn’t work, in this case a tenure committee and a student's right to sway it. So I come back to actors Blair Baker and David Barlow, who under the thoughtful direction of Bristol’s artistic director, Keith Baker, have a tough job: making us understand the issues without being able to make us understand the characters. That they do, on Julia C. Lee’s richly stocked set, and they do it, well, insufferably.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter.

Oleanna: Through Oct. 14 at Bristol Riverside Playhouse, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets: $10-$45. Information: 215-785-0100 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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