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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

OLEANNA (article first published : 2008-03-12)

Durban audiences have come to expect top quality theatre from the KickstArt theatre company and it hasn’t disappointed with Oleanna, its latest production at Seabrooke’s Theatre. The two-hander is written by David Mamet who also wrote Boston Marriage which was seen a few years back at Kwasuka Theatre.

Oleanna is directed by Steven Stead and designed by Greg King with Tim Wells and Janna Ramos Violante giving riveting performances.

Probably the most important issue for me in this highly-charged production is the fact that sometimes people are so filled with their own agendas that they don’t listen enough in conversation. Signals are ignored or go unrecognised in the other person’s behaviour or speech that – if gently probed or questioned - could perhaps avert potentially volatile situations. The upshot of it all is a stronger focus on “understanding”, a word that features strongly in this play.

The early part of the play is jerky - filled with unfinished sentences, interruptions and non-sequitors. A nightmare for the actors to learn. The lines are clearly drawn. A nervous, seemingly-vulnerable but determined student (Carol) has been asked to her professor’s office to discuss her unsatisfactory work.

The professor (John) is bored and impatient but slowly begins to realise that he is dealing with a kindred spirit, someone who is undergoing many of the problems he experienced in his earlier years. He’s also more than somewhat distracted – he’s in the process of buying a house as he expects to have tenure from the university shortly. Constant phone calls regarding the sale interrupt what he originally thought would be a quick discussion with the student. This discussion becomes more expansive and the teacher in John is roused into being frank with Carol, revealing his ideas on a number of subjects, including higher education. A poignant moment has Carol weeping on his shoulder.

In the second act, we discover that while Carol may have low self-esteem, she is not the timid little mouse she appeared at first. Tight-lipped and remorseless, she has laid charges of harassment against John – worse is still to come – and his life begins to fall apart. As the action relentlessly leads to its dramatic close, the power-base changes and it is Carol who is the instructor and John the one who pleads “I don’t understand”.

Oleanna represents every educationist’s nightmare where actions and discussions originally intended as casual or innocuous are turned into something more sinister and provocative and eventually led in evidence in an application to the teaching institution’s higher authority.

I was particularly impressed with Tim Wells, considering that the last major dramatic role he played was in Copenhagen over six years ago, a performance which deservedly gained him a nomination for an FNB Vita Best Actor award. To handle a substantial text like Oleanna is tantamount to being told to run the Comrades Marathon – both ways over 24 hours! If he’s struggled to get back into the strenuous demands of such multi-layered role, it certainly doesn’t show as he handles it with command and just the right level of nervous energy.

Already a highly skilled and versatile actress, Janna Ramos Violante just gets better with every role she plays and her interpretation of the difficult character of Carol is masterly. With her earlier questions in the play as to why John would bother to spend time on her, we never know what Carol is really feeling or on what possible earlier experiences her eventual actions are based. Tim is a powerful actor and she holds her own in the shift in power with vigour and controlled energy.

Director Steven Stead has dexterously moulded what could be a fairly harrowing production into one which crackles with fireworks while allowing the frailty of the characters’ egos to attract the audience’s sympathy, as both professor and student are at fault. This is no academic diatribe but a riveting and extremely well-presented dramatic slice of life. Greg King’s set is simple, sensible and suitably academic allowing good space for the action, which gets a bit hectic at the end!

The play could be likened to a Rachmaninoff concerto – lots of sparkle and thunder but some beautifully emotional moments along the way. It plays for an hour 15 minutes without an interval and is well worth a visit.

Oleanna runs at Seabrooke's Theatre (DHS) until March 30 with performances from Tuesday to Saturday at 19h30 (Sundays at 15h00). Tickets R90 for unreserved seats booked through Computicket. No under 14's. Remember if you’re dressed for high summer, take a jacket or wrap, Seabrooke’s airconditioning works very well! – Caroline Smart




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