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David Sapiro and Ben Parman star in "Oleanna."
David Sapiro and Ben Parman star in "Oleanna."

Shock gimmick spoils Alchemist's look at sexual exploitation

There are few things in the world I dislike more than when I feel I am being manipulated or when I am stuck in the middle of something designed to shock for shock’s sake.

That’s the feeling I walked away with after opening night of a solid production of "Oleanna" at Alchemist Theatre. In 1992, the play was David Mamet's stab to stake out a position on the furious national debate about sexual exploitation. The play was written on the heels of the Congressional hearings in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debate.

In the world of theater, shock and surprise need to come from the play and the actors, not from production subterfuge and gimmicks. But that’s what happened Thursday night.

The story is about a college professor and his student. He is a righteous pedant. She is clueless and has come to his office to ask for understanding and beg for help. Erin Eggers, who made her directorial debut with this production, took Mamet’s student Carol and cast it with a man, actor Ben Parman.

I don’t know if the decision would have worked or not, but I will say that in her notes, Eggers says that she purposely did not disclose the casting decision so that the audience could focus on the words in the play.

Somebody needed to tell her that if she really didn’t want it to be an issue, she should not have kept it a secret. When you spring it on an audience moments before the curtain goes up, you allow no time to deal with the shock, and a great deal of the words are lost.

Let me give an example, which I hope she reads.

The wonderful Illinois Shakespeare Festival has done several plays with all men in the cast. The motivation is that, in Shakespeare’s day, there were no women actors. But they didn’t spring the surprise on the audience. They got it out of the way in advance so that the play was the thing.

So right off the bat, I felt manipulated, that this casting decision was done for shock value despite protestations to the contrary. If she didn’t want to shock people, she would have revealed the casting well in advance.

Eggers calls her casting "gender fluidity." But this wasn’t fluid gender. This changed the play.

The way Mamet wrote it, the story is about a man and a woman. In this production, it’s about a man and a man who is clearly a gay man. He even complains about "doubtful sexuality" and overcoming "sexual prejudice" to get into college. When first we see him, he’s wearing silver sparkling flats and white pedal pushers with zippered sides.

That adds a pretty important and artificial layer to Mamet’s play. All of a sudden, we have a straight man with a wife and a son trapped in a room with a young man of "doubtful sexuality."

Talk about obscuring the point of the play. And it’s really a shame because this is really quite a play. I saw it in New York about five years ago, and it’s moving and tough and raw and exposes the issues of power and dominance. 

If Eggers had been upfront about this whole thing, it would have been much easier to ride the flow of Mamet’s words. There is so much interesting content in this play that it’s a shame that more seasoned heads didn’t put the brakes on Eggers.

Everything else about this production was really pretty good. There were minor details that might be fixed, but generally the acting and staging was just fine. But the whole thing got lost in a cloud of resentment, shock and wonder.


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