The only sound as the actors take their bows is the sound of clapping. There are no cheers, no yelling, only hands clapping. It is not because the audience does not know the actors or did not enjoy the play, but rather because everyone is too busy figuring out their emotions to cheer. Such was the scene at the end of opening night for Oleanna, last weekend’s Cap & Bells production.
Oleanna, written by David Mamet and adapted slightly for the College’s performance, is performed with a simple set, two actors and an intensity that keeps the observer paying attention. Directed by Ali Bunis ’16 and with Tom Robertshaw ’19 in the role of the Professor and Kimmy Golding ’16 as Carol, the play dives into the two characters’ twisted, complicated relationship and what can happen with the twisting of words and unwatched actions.
The play opens with the Professor sitting at his desk, on the phone and clearly frustrated. As he hangs up, he notices Carol waiting off to the side and invites her to sit down to discuss what is bothering her. Then the drama starts. Through sentences cut off by the Professor, Carol tries to explain that she’s doing everything required of her for his class and yet she is still not doing well. The Professor seems to fail to understand why she is in his office, constantly interrupting her attempts at explanation and going off in a different direction. As much as Carol tries to discuss her reasoning for coming, the Professor seems to have an agenda of his own, emphasized by the constant interruption of the telephone ringing. At one point, the Professor offers to give Carol an A in the class if she would come in a few extra times to his office and start the course over with him. Carol seems dubious and apprehensive. “Why?” she asks. “I like you,” the Professor responds simply. Carol is a little shocked and taken aback by the statement, and again the conversation turns into a quick back and forth with each character interrupting the other and the Professor dominating the conversation as he had been doing earlier. Carol finally leaves the Professor’s office, and the room goes dark.
When the lights go back on, Carol has moved from the right side to the left side of the desk, drawing our attention to the other side of the room. The Professor looks a little disheveled, and Carol looks nervous as she sits down and waits for him to speak. In the conversation that follows, the reason for Carol’s nervousness is revealed: She has filed a report against the Professor claiming sexual assault and pornographic references. She has also given the report to the tenure committee, which was just about to grant the Professor tenure. The audience feels the tension as the Professor reads over the report and Carol waits. A discussion full of yelling and accusations ensues, in the cut-off method of speaking so prevalent in the play. I was not surprised by the sexual assault allegation, but the fact that Carol claimed that a phrase, which went along the lines of “poor people copulate more frequently than the rich,” was pornographic did surprise me. This emphasized the idea that people have to be careful with the words and phrases they use because they may be taken and understood in a different way than originally intended. The scene ends with the Professor grabbing Carol forcefully but then letting her go, and Carol walking out of the room.
If the audience hadn’t had enough to think about already, they were about to get more. No one could really expect what was to come. Carol comes into the Professor’s office and carefully takes a seat. She has switched sides again and, along with the physical change, the power has also shifted. Carol is now in control. The Professor looks incredibly disheveled – his hair is a mess, his jacket is off, his tie is loose and his shirt is slightly unbuttoned. Carol has also accused the Professor of rape and her lawyers have advised her not to go to his office. But the Professor has asked her there, and she informs him she is there as a favor. The Professor reveals that he has not gone home in two days, as he has been staying at a hotel to try to think over the events of the past couple of days. Carol is completely in control, and, with each of her words, the Professor seems to become more and more defeated. But he is also angry. He was so close to getting tenure, and he was in the process of buying a big house, and he had a family. All of this was being taken away by Carol’s allegations, and at one point he screams at her to “get the fuck out,” but she doesn’t leave. Instead, she stays and continues to try to talk to him, which angers him to the point of incredible physical violence and derogatory name-calling, ending only when Carol is on the floor crying and the Professor has a chair raised and is ready to strike but catches himself.
The room goes black again, and then the actors are bowing and the audience is clapping and it’s all over. The beautiful acting by Robertshaw and Golding has left everyone speechless and trying to sort through the emotionally and physically intense scene we have just witnessed. In an hour and 20 minutes, these two actors have led us through emotions and situations that are tough to hear about or see and even harder to confront. Oleanna was truly an important play to see and I commend the director and actors for an amazing performance.