In staging David Mamet’s always controversial “Oleanna,” the creative team behind Katonah Classic Stage is looking for trouble. In a good way.
The 1992 two-character play about the power struggle between a male college professor and a female student who accuses him of sexual harassment (with major consequences) has reportedly led to screaming matches between real-life couples in theater lobbies. And “Mamet being Mamet,” it’s complicated. The play is as much a portrait of sexual harassment as it is political correctness and cancel culture — before the phrases were even coined.
“Oleanna” opens at Bedford Historical Hall on Thursday, Nov. 4, and runs through Sunday, Nov. 14.
Trent Dawson, KCS founding director and artistic director, and Sharron Kearney, KCS executive director, knew what they were getting into. ‘“Oleanna” has divided audiences along gender lines to such a degree it’s as if men and women are watching two different plays,” said Mr. Dawson, who is directing the production. “The theater nerd in me loves that ambiguity. Interestingly, at the recent revival in London, it also divided audiences by generation. It lays bare our prejudices regarding gender, age, higher education and more. I don’t know if people will be screaming at each other, but I expect intense debates over post-show drinks.”
“Our world has been reduced to clickbait no matter how complicated the subject matter is,” added Ms. Kearney. “Nuance is dead and there can only ever be one right opinion. ‘Oleanna’ eschews all of that. At varying moments in the play, you could easily find yourself wondering, “Who am I rooting for?’”
The November production marks KCS’s big comeback play after COVID-19 forced the young theater company to cancel, postpone and reimagine many of its earlier plans. As such, might they have chosen to ease audiences back into the live theater experience rather than stage a show that riles them up?
“Trent and I talked a lot about this,” said Ms. Kearney. “Do we want our first play to invite controversy? Pre-COVID, our first two plays were supposed to be ‘Twelfth Night’ and “Private Lives,” which fall into the whimsical, ‘fun’ pantheon of theater, whereas “Oleanna” clearly does not. But then we started talking about what we missed about live theater —that is, shows that have you talking about them, sometimes arguing about them, but most of all, thinking about them. If we do ‘Oleanna’ right, we will have hit all three of those marks.”
The play’s ending doesn’t resolve but provokes more arguments. As such, it seems to hold up a mirror to our culture, which seems ever-obsessed with the he said/she said and powerful man/subordinate woman syndrome with no resolution in sight.
“Oleanna didn’t just age well,” Mr. Dawson observed, “It’s as if Mamet was prescient.” “Relevant and timely are over-used, but wow! It’s not wrong to say it’s about sexual harassment, but it’s also about something deeper and less salacious than sex,” he continued, “In my view, both characters in ‘Oleanna’ have great arguments. They are also both culpable. I would do a disservice to the play if I chose a side. People will decide that for themselves. And, yes, I think Bedford is ready for it.”
Even if “Oleanna” isn’t a lean back and enjoy experience, the KCS artistic director is convinced audiences will be enthralled. “The characters are very interesting, structurally the play is superb and it’s also very entertaining,” Mr. Dawson said.
Actor Jordan Lage, who plays John, the professor, has known Mr. Mamet for 40 years, studied under him at New York University and has performed in dozens of his plays, including “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” “There’s a music in David’s dialogue,” says Mr. Lage. “When you and your scene partner are in sync with Mamet’s rhythms, it’s kind of like synchronized diving. It not only feels good, it wows the audience.”
Theater professionals actually call the playwright’s fast, often-imitated dialogue style “Mamet speak.” “While Mamet has an amazing ear for realistic dialogue, he goes beyond that and creates his own, not necessarily ‘realistic’ world rhythmically,” said Mr. Dawson. “There’s a unique genius to that.”
Given the challenges of such a script, imagine when it’s a two-character play like “Oleanna.” “There’s no break for either actor. They get on that roller coaster together and don’t get off until curtain call,” Mr. Dawson observed. “Exhaustion becomes the biggest obstacle. But I want to take a moment here to say that we cast two phenomenal actors, Jordan and Lea DiMarchi (as Carol, the student), whose instincts are impeccable.”
Mr. Lage said his co-star and he clicked immediately. “Without even discussing it beforehand, Lea and I were on the same page on how we’d like the piece to sound,” the actor said, “which is to say, as unartificial as possible.”
Mr. Dawson and Ms. Kearney, who are married, not only are sure Bedford is ready for this production, they think the town is primed to see KCS become a force in the local arts community. “Bedford is an incredible cultural hub,” said Ms. Kearney, mentioning Caramoor, the Katonah Museum of Art, Bedford Playhouse and the Bedford Historical Society. “And that is one of the reasons we chose to live here. But part of why it made sense to start KCS was because, when it came to professional live theater, there was a void, and certainly there was no theater committed to the classics.”
Mr. Dawson is a director, producer and actor with numerous credits on television, with three Emmy nominations, and on Broadway and the Westport Playhouse as well as countless Shakespeare plays. Ms. Kearney has followed a very different professional path. She was a trial lawyer and U.S. attorney, who continued her federal service working for the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She sought a good work-life balance and raised a family with Mr. Dawson. “Then I decided, ‘Who needs work-life balance?’ she laughed, “Let’s start a theater company!” Ms. Kearney continued, “In all seriousness, Trent has wanted to start a theater company for years and when we decided that Katonah was our hometown, where we were going to raise our kids, Jack, 6, and Emma, 4, we just decided to go for it.”
While there will never be a shortage of cultural diversions in Bedford, there is added value in the chance for a community to experience catharsis, witnessing human conflict and resolution that resonates, all in the safety of a theater seat.
“By committing ourselves to classic works, KCS can put on ancient Greek drama and realize it would still be relevant because the most interesting parts of humanity haven’t really changed all that dramatically,” said Ms. Kearney. “Classic means timeless. Shakespeare is timeless, in that we have seen the themes in his writings play out time and again in the real world over the last 500 years. But then, you have a contemporary play like ‘Oleanna’ written 30 years ago at a time when we thought we were on the precipice of change, yet today we’re still talking about the same power struggle between genders. Though I’m loathe to say it, I’d venture a guess that a few hundred years from now, “Oleanna” will still be relevant.”
For tickets and more information, visit katonahclassicstage.com