Oleanna (July 7-July 24, 2011)

“Oleanna”

One of the best shows you never saw?

By Christian Carvajal

You can see Volcano theater critic Christian Carvajal in action.

“I just want to smack her!” Let’s face it, you’re unlikely to hear an audience member gasp anything like that at Summer in the Sixties or Godspell, but she wasn’t complaining. In a way, she was cheering. I’ll explain. The smack-worthy character in question was Carol, a student played by Deya Ozburn, who had just accused John, played by me, of a horrible crime. Was she right? Maybe so. It’s a question every audience member must decide for him- or herself, because the answer will not be spoon-fed.

Look, this isn’t a review. I’m in Oleanna, so I’m hardly unbiased, but I hope you’ll take my word for it that this play has impact. (Our Tacoma critics will be unable to attend.) Whatever you may think of David Mamet or his he-man gender politics, two weekends of this show have proven to me that when it’s over, people want to talk. They want to talk to each other, and to us. They want to know what Carol meant by her “group.” They want to know why the professor keeps answering his phone at the least helpful moments. They argue over which character presented the better argument. Most of all, they want to gripe for hours about the most infuriating teacher they ever had … and they’re grinning from ear to ear.

Trouble is, our record attendance was 20 people, and it’s slipped as low as five, despite the fact that several return for a second viewing. We’ll be lucky to break even on a show Alec Clayton called “highly charged dramatic entertainment.” But how do you sell a show with a meaningless name, by an author most people have never heard of, about a subject that makes people uncomfortable (the limits of political correctness), with characters who are seldom heroic and, I assure you, do not fall in love?

This show reminds us that most people select their entertainment based primarily on its validation of their idealized beliefs. They’d prefer to believe we can always tell the good guy from the bad guy (he’s better looking and wears lighter clothing) and he’ll get the girl, pretty blonde women in their 20s are saints, brunettes and redheads are trouble, every villain announces his nefarious plans, God is in His Heaven and when all is said and done, cleft-chinned righteousness will triumph. Of course, the world maintains its steady contradiction of all those beliefs, so we turn to movies, TV and, yes, theater to assure us we were right all along. Is your boss a villain, or just an overworked, underappreciated middle manager with a bottom line weighing on his soul? Are you the victim of circumstance, or have you made poor decisions? Will Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston ever have an actual problem finding love? For answers to these and other questions, you could consult, say, reality, or you could turn to summer popcorn movies or the boob tube. I love those, too, but Oleanna is trying to do more than that, and we’re finding you don’t want it.

This is in no way meant to chastise busy Olympians or those few who’ve made time to see it. But when shows like Oleanna bomb, it tells us you want pabulum. Do you? I want to believe there’s room for all kinds of entertainment, even challenging think pieces, if only the market will sustain them. Look, it’s not just Oleanna. Even End Days, my absolute favorite production since I started this job, played to emptier-than-usual houses. So tell us how to sell you complex material, or tell us that’s impossible. And if you’re one of the bizarre few who like deep entertainment, we’ll be at Olympia Little Theatre for five shows this weekend. Give Oleanna a try. If you detest it, tell me why. I’ll be the guy covered in cuts and bruises from our labor of love.

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