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Jon Mack and Rebecca Musgrove perform a scene from David Mamet’s “Oleanna.”

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What happens when a playwright prohibits the alteration of his play? In the case of David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna,’ Rock River Players get creative to temper the narrative for the #MeToo era

WILLIAMSVILLE — Actor Jon Mack believes that sometimes a performance of a play, even if it is performed word-for-word as originally written, need not completely adhere to the intentions of the author.

Take, for instance, the new production of David Mamet's Oleanna, which the Rock River Players will present on two weekends this month.

Directed by Bahman Mahdavi, this two-character drama features Jon Mack and Rebecca Musgrove in a play about the power struggle between a university professor and one of his female students, who accuses him of sexual exploitation and, by doing so, spoils his chances of being accorded tenure.

As the RRP news release describes it, “Written in 1992, inspired by the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill Senate hearings, yet well before the #MeToo era, the succinct three-act play detonates the fury of sexual politics.”

Critic Frank Rich provides a summary of the play in his review of the off-Broadway production: “Oleanna ... is an impassioned response to the Thomas hearings. As if ripped right from the typewriter, it could not be more direct in its technique or more incendiary in its ambitions.”

“This one is really controversial, perhaps even more topical today than when written,” says Mack. “We are now dealing with the complications of abuse and accusation, issues that are at the heart of this intense drama.”

'Frighteningly true'

In its release of the play, RRP asserts that “there is much in Oleanna that rings frighteningly true: a smug professor, enamored with his own oratory prowess, dismissive of a struggling student; students trying to shut down a class because the professor's reading list is 'questionable,' and, most notably, a shift in the balance of power between the generations and the sexes, using language as their ammunition and tool for winning power over one and another.”

Nonetheless, it would be misleading to say the agenda of Mamet is the same as that of the #MeToo movement. To contend that Mamet's sympathies are with the student here would be to refashion the work into something it clearly was not intended to be.

In a 2008 essay in The Village Voice titled “Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal,” Mamet revealed that he had gradually rejected political correctness and progressivism and embraced conservatism.

“Let's face it, Mamet's politics are quite problematic,” says Mack. “But he is one of the most brilliant playwrights of our era, who can capture the nuances of human conflict.”

Mamet has been explicit about not allowing anyone to change anything in the text, and refuses to sanction discussions after the play. He has even issued a cease-and-desist order when a production tried to change the play into a same-sex issue.

However, none of this precludes seeing alternative narratives in the text.

“While we are not changing a single word, we are trying to make the arguments in the play more in balance with the thinking of the people who live around here,” Mack says. “Rather than strictly adhering to Mamet's political agenda, we want subtly to shift the play to ideas we find more acceptable.”

How can that be achieved when one is legally forced to adhere to the play as written?

“This is done through direction, innuendo, and costumes,” explains Mack. “In the original text, it is hard to sympathize with the student because she is very strident from the start. We have tried to soften that. In contrast, originally the professor was very upright and dignified. We have made him a little sleazier. How characters are played can indicate different politics. For our time, place and sensibilities, we chart the play's political edge away from Mamet's conservative to our more progressive one.”

Even so, both Mack and Mahdavi believe it would be a shame to delimit the play to a topical issue of sexual politics.

Making audiences squirm

Mahdavi says, “As with all great works of art, nothing is simple in this story. The characters are complex and flawed, sincere and manipulative. The playwright has been quoted as saying he wants to make his audience members choose as they squirm and hyperventilate over the onstage fireworks. The goal is ultimately to create debate and discussion.”

“I think it should be quite a powerful piece and very much attuned to current issues, in that it presents a particularly dramatic and entertaining vista into the vicissitudes of the abuse of power,” Mack says. “Though the primary focus is on a male professor being accused of sexual misconduct with his female student, the play is about the abuse of power more generally and about an extremely fraught relationship between two people more particularly.”

Mahdavi says, “For my directorial debut, I chose a play with only two characters depicting human conflicts and exploring how we act when we are put in a situation where we have no control. The play is not a code for some deeper feelings; it's not an elaborate attempt to say anything other than what it says.

“It's primarily about language - its power, its limitations, and who controls it. David Mamet, one of the greatest American playwrights, has a clipped, precisely-crafted style of diction leaving no room for error or improvisation. Like a classical music score where everything is in the execution.”

Mack says, “In granting performance rights, Mamet's rather explicit about wanting the play to stand on its own and not having a 'talk back' session after the play, but there's certainly nothing to prohibit lively conversation in the lobby after the show and I'll be curious to hear what audience members think.”

Mack got involved with Oleanna for a simple reason: He was asked to play the part of the professor by Mahdavi.

“This is Bahman's directorial debut,” Mack says. “He got the acting bug after appearing in RRC's 10 Angry Jurists. Formerly the head of the Board of the United Way of Windham County and president of InSight Photography, Mahdavi is an uncommonly erudite gentlemsn, which is precisely what one needs to get through the complications of this play. He loves Mamet and was really eager to take on this drama.”

'Intensely personal'

Mack had never read or seen any productions of Oleanna.

“I looked at the script and thought that this is quite a role,” Mack says. “The characters, a male professor on the verge of obtaining tenure and his female student challenging him, are multi-dimensional, not caricatures. Both are seriously flawed, yet both are capable of evoking empathy as their thoughts and feelings are laid bare. Nothing is held back in this intensely personal drama.”

He found part of the professor to be challenging on many levels.

“As an actor, Oleanna is one of the most exciting pieces I've ever attempted,” Mack says. “Mamet's dialogue is how people really talk: pointed, terse, intense. Dialogue overlaps. Sentences are left dangling. It's a marvelously taut drama that builds relentlessly to its stunning conclusion.

“Mamet has a knack for writing dialogue that I find thrilling. You might not call it literally realistic, but if it isn't the way we might talk, it's the way we should talk.”

Mack found getting into this text to be “very intense.”

“The process of learning the lines of the sharp dialogue filled with incomplete sentences and phrases cut off mid-line has had us living inside Mamet's world,” says Mack. “Normally, an actor has to find ways to empathize with a character very different from themselves. Here, I've also sometimes found myself over-identifying with my character.

“Having been a college professor most of my adult life, I have to remind myself that I'm not the man I play, and that, hopefully, I would not have acted as he does had I found myself in his situation.”

This production will play first at the Rock River Players' base of Williamsville Hall and then at the Hooker-Dunham Theater in Brattleboro.

“We decided to move the production to Hooker-Dunham since I have that option since I am the manager of that theater,” Mack says. “I think we can tap into a different audience at the different venues.

“Even though the two locations are not that far apart, many people in Brattleboro won't venture to Williamsville, and people from Williamsville won't go to Brattleboro. We are using the model of Main Street Arts, which played its production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for different audiences at different places.”

All involved, including assistant director Dody Riggs and lighting technician Miles Keefe, have been working long and hard to put on a stellar production.

“We have been working on this play for two-and-a-half months,” says Mack. “Dealing directly with sexism, elitism, and the abuse of power in a complex way, our production of Oleanna aims to stir thought and passionate discussion.”

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