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Julia Stiles & Bill Pullman  

 
 

Mamet speak!

   

 

  

David Mamet's Oleanna is back, this time on Broadway at the Golden Theater.  Written in 1992, it is the playwright's answer of sorts to the Thomas hearings, a short dynamo of a play about the interaction between John, a well-meaning college professor, and Carol, a confused and perhaps not-so-innocent female charge.  Today, it becomes more of a mesmerizing analysis of how language can be twisted, interpreted and used to often self-delusional and deceitful ends.  Language as power and control, the ineluctable pull of words and their ability to confuse, confound, and betray when wielded carelessly or with malice.

 

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman deliver accomplished, nuanced interpretations.  Stiles, who starred in the Bourne action series and charmed us in Mona Lisa Smile, brings her trademark stoic grace to the stage, a strong contained fury of a presence.  Pullman whose remarkable range runs from stage presentations of Edward Albee's Peter and Jerry and The Goat to the films Independence Day, Sommersby, and A League of their Own, is a man struggling to be at once fair and true to himself, a man whose facial tics and self-questioning hint at a worrisome lack of confidence.

 

Mamet has always delighted in quick dialogue and repartee, 'Mamet speak' that very particular use of language that is all about multiple meanings, (mis)understandings, and deceit.  Many of his plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross, his dark drama about Chicago real estate shenanigans and films (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Heist) center around the world of crooks and con artists whose dealings are echoed in their use of language.  This shift of locale in Oleanna to the ivory tower of academe, an unusual choice then for Mamet. 

 

Fascinating as well the history of the play's title: Oleanna refers to an 1853 Norwegian song written by Ditmar Meidell and sung in English by Pete Seeger.  A critique of utopian societies established in the United States by a Norwegian immigrant by the name of Ole Bull, the song proclaims:

Oh to be in Oleanna

that's where I'd like to be

Than to be in Norway

and bear the chains of slavery...

The choice of title hinting that perhaps the idea of language that is crystal clear is a mere illusion…or is it that Mamet distrusts language itself, puts no stock in the currency of his trade?  

 

Oleanna becomes then a play about the shifting nature of power and language. Mamet's talent lies in part in his wonderful ability to subtly change our viewpoint by his ingenious use of dialogue.  It's a subtle shift that occurs: one minute one is squarely in one camp and then suddenly doubt begins to chip away at one's certainty...or does it? 

 

 

See: Oleanna 

 

Tags:  theatre  broadway

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