Theatrically Nasty Thoughts – Edition #6

OLEANNA – From one ‘John’ to another


[NOTE: I am honestly not a reviewer by any stretch of the imagination – THIS IS NOT A REVIEW – all this is said in the interest of generating theatrical discussions]

This afternoon my wife and I made our way to the BlackBox on the STU campus to take in Theatre New Brunswick’s production of Oleannawe, Nasty Shadows, just staged this show back in May (I played ‘John’) so I was very intrigued to see what TNB’s version would offer, and felt myself in a very good spot to really engage since I know the show so intimately at this time. By the end of the first act what struck me most is that I think we made a potentially fatal flaw in our approach in so far as I feel my ‘John’ and Becky’s ‘Carol’ may have made too much effort in trying to communicate during Act I – this choice pulled our entire production in a different direction than the choice made by TNB’s performance and the direction it then followed. This is not to say we failed, but simply that I think this is where a shift in approach occurred and I’m going to blame it mostly on me and my desire never not to be a nice guy – even as the professor I felt a nugget in the text of a nice guy ‘John’ and held onto that a bit. As such, there were key moments in Act I where my ‘John’ was genuinely interested in ‘Carol’ and her troubles. In TNB’s staging it was brutally apparent Shawn Wright’s ‘John’ had no real concern, nor time to have concern for the woes of Natalie Roy’s ‘Carol’. Wright sped through sections of text in a way that made the memory of my own delivery seem sluggish and overwrought with “drama”. (Apologies, but I can only compare what I saw today with what I remember of our production – it gives me grounding for the discussion.) Not that I was “sluggish” because I was certainly aware of what Mamet wanted and Nick’s direction kept that in check. I was just very impressed by the first act’s ability to portray these two people having two conversations with neither, but especially the professor, engaging in the other’s side of the conversation. ‘John’ carries that act in some sense, so it’s not surprising that most of this seemed driven by Wright’s stripped and mildly robotic portrayal. He was cold in a way I can’t quite pin down because there was this element of charm – almost salesman-like – made me want to keep watching him. Meanwhile, Roy’s ‘Carol’ was rather aloof in her own way. At the end of the act I had no real sense of what ‘Carol’ was really like. Roy seemed to be following the Mametian method as well of just speaking the text and not embellishing needlessly to try and “help” it. Both actors exercised great craft in this regard, I thought.


By contrast, I think my ‘John’ fell tragically in a different way than Wright’s. His ‘John’ had more of a wake-up call with the realization provoked by his final drastic action rather than a build to that. It was very interesting to me to watch Wright carry the same basic ‘John’ through the entire show, until erupting a few moments in the third act just briefly, and then his explosion in that final scene. We had used the elapsed time in the story between acts to send both ‘John’ and ‘Carol’ further down their respective journeys, I think. The version I witnessed today seemed like the story transpired over just a few days – our version had the sense of a couple weeks passing so the tragedy unfolded more gradually. Interesting choices that change details of the story telling, these were the things that intrigued me this afternoon. And then, I also found it funny to see Wright gesture or stand in the same way I’d stood for a particular line or passage – like the moment begged you go be on the corner of the desk talking over it so you could wrap your knuckle on the book, etc. But his delivery of certain lines and passages rang so oddly in my head since they were so unlike my own, and yet I was thoroughly fascinated by these differences. Of course, there was a greater age difference between TNB’s characters and that altered things considerably as well.

In the end, as far as the controversy goes and as I think is just the case with the script, I hate ‘em both for their self-centered agendas. Well done.

I would be interested to hear any comments from anyone who happened to see both our production this past spring and TNB’s, just to hear what you thought.

And my apologies to the actors as I was sitting in the front row and I’m pretty sure I was lip-syncing at times – my wife said I was moving/shifting at times … must have been following my blocking! HA!

One more chance to catch Oleanna – tomorrow, Sunday @2pm. Don’t miss it.

Posted on September 23, 2012, in Production News, Theatre Stuff, Theatrical Stuff and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Just a couple of quick responses (besides “thanks for continuing this conversation”)

    About this: “However, I would argue _Oleanna_ is by no means natural or realistic — I love Mamet and he has me convinced of his view that his language is poetic, not realistic; that people don’t actually talk like his characters do and this is because of the time element involved in drama and it’s unfolding.” Kelly Nestruck (whose review in the _Globe_ is worth reading) said in a conversation on Friday afternoon that he thought of the play as a nightmare — which comes close to what you’re saying, and which makes the whole thing a lot more powerful to me.

    And about this: “when you say how you are now starting to see Carol, is that a result of both these recent productions? TNB’s Carol? Or, just from the text itself?” It’s really from re-reading the script. I don’t think either production lent itself to this interpretation — and couldn’t, given the commitment both clearly had to evening out the balance. But I think that Mamet (maybe inadvertently) leaves the possibility there that Carol’s setting John up from the very beginning. Without changing a word of the script, you could stage it that way. Not only by having her obviously writing in her notebook when he says, “with my wife. With my job”; but also pushing the protestations of ignorance a bit more hysterically: why does she so aggressively _insist_ that she doesn’t understand anything? One reading is, to trap him into trying ever more aggressively (and ineptly) to “teach” her. Though I have no idea why anybody would do that: the play is male fascist enough to start with.

  2. And thank you, Russ (and Shawn!) for continuing the discussion.

    Re: Carol’s “taking notes” – we read this as Carol having possibly done this during class itself, or at least in/around the classroom, and not during her time alone with John — the notes she references have to do with things he says to other students, I believe, not just her. (We also floated the idea that Carol’s group had possibly given her this information — we based that on the influence they seem to have on her by Act 3 — but in the end I think we assume she had taken the notes in/around the classroom/time.)

    For us, Carol had a progression towards that same tragic fall John faces — we just don’t quite see the moment of her recognition. Her last line is too ambiguous, and we played it as such. But if we imagine a further scene we’d find Carol realizing how she’s brought this onto herself as well. Becky played Carol as progressively falling under the influence of the “Group”, in some sense, and then Carol becomes lost in a similar sea of power, and like John is unable to see it. In Act I though, our Carol was an innocent … at least, that’s how we tried playing it and thought it worked.

    Mamet wants this to be a tragedy (he’s stated as much in a number of interviews), and I think it’s strongly meeting that mark in a subtle way. It’s damn hard though, I’ll tell ya that. He’s asking alot, but he’s also busting open a level of understanding using drama — I think it’s easy to see Carol as a vixen or feminazi when we approach the play as a possible snapshot of life, or something realistic, a psychological unfolding. However, I would argue _Oleanna_ is by no means natural or realistic — I love Mamet and he has me convinced of his view that his language is poetic, not realistic; that people don’t actually talk like his characters do and this is because of the time element involved in drama and it’s unfolding.

    Peter Brook puts this best in relation to Shakespeare, but I think it holds for Mamet too. Brook notes how Shakespeare’s compression of time, through verse, is what is truly magical because it breaks you out of real life expectations and now the stage events are free to unfold in dramatic time, not real time. This is important to me because neither Carol or John are following a psychological passage through this tragic journey – it’s a dramatic passage and as such we need to watch with that in mind. Statements carry different weight; movements carry different weight – I’ve yet to watch the movie of _Oleanna_, but I’ll bet this will be problematic for me because film expectations are more in the vein of “that looks just like life and so should behave like it”. Whereas, onstage is clearly not a peek into a room, but an even unfolding in real dramatic time in front of the audience with the performers right there – nobody’s tricked into thinking they are witnessing something real.

    HA! I think I’m starting to lose my thread of thought here … if I had Brook’s book with me I could use his words to possibly explain the above point better …

    And so, I think focusing on the story as dramatic, and not the portrayal of a “real life” situation, finds us seeing Carol in a different light. TNB’s Carol was a little too faceless for me – I know she’s a cog in the institutional wheel and is lost in that, but she’s still a human being, a particular human being, and Roy’s performance felt more like Carol could have simply been Student X and that this would have played out similarly with John and just about any student – whereas our Nasty Carol found Becky, I think, making the character more human, more of a particular individual who’s particular presence in this exchange is necessary. For us, it had to be John and Carol. I didn’t get that sense from TNB, but I also found it an interesting choice and I’m not sure if Mamet would approve more of the TNB Carol or not. Who cares – both versions work for different reasons. The sign of a rich text, perhaps?

    Russ, when you say how you are now starting to see Carol, is that a result of both these recent productions? TNB’s Carol? Or, just from the text itself? I’m curious … I would hope our Carol wouldn’t have allowed you to have seen her as starting with an agenda because of Becky’s performance in Act 1, but that TNB’s more faceless Carol (like reading the text on the page itself) allows one to apply certain interpretations because of Carol’s faceless, less individualistic portrayal – this allows the viewer more possibilities of how s/he wants to see Carol. Our version of Carol, I think, was seen too much as a “person” to come to the sinister conclusion of her plotting from the start.

    But, maybe my perspective is skewed … yeah, maybe! HA! The above is how we felt things went for our interpretation …


  3. Shawn, sorry for misspelling your name: my fingers did it.

  4. Thanks for those thoughtful comments, Scott (and for your response, Sean). I’m amazed at how clear my memory of the Nasty Shadows show was, and how clearly it matches Scott’s description. At the time, I thought Nasty Shadows was working to redress Mamet’s balance in favour of John, and I still think so — but I now see how much more could have been done to make it clear that John’s just not able to see or hear Carol at all, how thoroughly he’s locked into his own ego. I’m still not convinced that Scott & Co. weren’t closer to Mamet’s intention (I really detest the script; it seems to me Mamet’s saying that Carol’s a feminazi, and I now have begun to think he’s hinting that Carol may have been conducting a sting with that first visit (suppose we’d had Carol assiduously taking notes of everything John says? She implies later that she was doing that, but we didn’t see it, in either show).

    Anyway, thanks to both of you (and everybody involved in both shows) for helping me think about this script more deeply.

  5. such an interesting read, scott. thank you for sharing those thoughts. i would love to have seen your “john” as well.
    i wish that saint john was the hot bed of drama when i was living there that it is now thanks to people like you and stephen tobias (and caleb when he brings shows there).
    shawn wright

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