Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 1999
Under new management, the former Manic Stage has reached back to its roots to reinvent itself as what it always ought to have been. A venue for small cast shows utilizing the best of local talent. Trying to cram Shakespeare into that narrow theatre space was just plain nuts. David Mamet's two-person masterpiece "Oleanna" is just right, and this production directed by Patrick Bonavitacola is a fine example of how good intimate theatre can be.
"Oleanna" is not an easy play to perform, to watch, or to write about. This is my second time reviewing a production of this show, and the phrase I came away with was "I don't understand." Not that I don't understand the play...or that I do...or that anyone does...or that anyone is supposed to... This is not a play about understanding. It is a play about misunderstanding.
Two people are alone in a room. One is male and one is female. The man is a professor of education at an unnamed New England college. The woman is a student in his class. The room is his office. The audience sees and hears everything that goes on between them. There is no ambiguity. You are there. They are there. Things are said and things happen. But when the evening is through no one understands what has happened, or why, or exactly how. That is the beauty of a truly well-written play by one of America's greatest living playwrights. It is not what happens or what is said that matters - it is how the people involved interpret it. And as a member of the audience you will have your own interpretation.
Main Street Stage is offering discussion periods with the cast and the director following each performance of "Oleanna" I did not attend the one on opening night because I did not want this to become a review of the opening night audience rather than the opening night performance. But I would encourage you to stay because this is a play that you will feel the need to talk about.
Bruce T. MacDonald, who is also the new Managing Director of Main Street Stage, is John, the pompous and pedantic college professor. Stephanie Saunders is the student, Carol. Both give compelling performances. This is a grown-up play and these are two mature and capable actors who perform well as a team. It is fascinating to watch their dance of power and manipulation.
Bonavitacola has directed them well on an adequate but well-lit set. I enjoyed the subtle shifts in power reflected in the simple costumes.
A few small gripes, but very small ones. I wished someone had put a cord on the phone MacDonald traipsed around the stage with. It is hard to believe someone is talking on the phone when the phone isn't plugged into the wall. And maybe I was sitting too close, but I wished MacDonald had been a bit less theatrical with his facial make-up. College professors are not noted for their use of make-up in the office, and MacDonald could pass for a professor any day without it.
The only other complaint I have is with the new seating at Main Street. The theatre used to have padded metal chairs, and frankly I had sat on worse. MacDonald and Artistic Director Spencer Trova have worked night and day to install the old theatrical seating from the former Berkshire Public Theatre in Pittsfield, kindly donated by Joel Greenberg. Alas, this seating, while much cushier, was obviously originally built for a moviehouse. You find yourself in a semi-reclining attitude, pointed looking upwards to where the movie screen would be...which in this case focuses your eyes on the black void above the actors' heads at the back of the theatre. In order to look at the stage you have to tuck your chin under in an uncomfortable manner. I feel very badly, knowing how hard MacDonald and Trova worked to bring these seats to Main Street, but I cannot say that they are an improvement.
"Oleanna" runs weekends through November 14 at the Main Street Stage, 55 Main Street, North Adams. The show runs an hour and a half with one intermission. Call the Main Street Stage box office at 413-663-3240 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999