“What has led you to this place? Not your sex. Not your race. Not your class. YOUR OWN ACTIONS. And you’re angry.”
Spanning multiple months through three scenes, “Oleanna” tells a story of toxic masculinity, ignorance and changing political correctness in collegiate environments. The title of the play, written by famous American playwright David Mamet, refers to a 19th century folk song, which explores the ideas of escapism and utopia. John, an Education professor awaiting tenure, worried about the acquisition of his new home and his stressful marriage, feels a connection to Carol, a self-depreciative student who simply does not understand the course material and comes to John’s office for help. A power dynamic arises when John offers to change Carol’s failing grade to an A — if she continues to speak with him. Thus, a problematic, perturbing relationship is established between the two: John seeking someone to share his own failures and doubts with, Carol seeking a better grade.
What John believes to be an innocent relationship, is perceived by Carol as patriarchal, sexist and principally immoral. She reports John to the tenure approval board, citing John’s underlying sexism, flirtatious nature and racism. This marks a shift in the power dynamic, and the rest of the show chronicles John’s ironic inability to understand the political and social framework in which he exists and the immorality of his own actions. His life is effectively placed in the hands of Carol, who has the power to enact the progressive, politically correct idea of justice that John simply cannot comprehend. John’s descent into rage and blatant sexism throughout the play embodies his inability to adapt.
Directed by Noah Konkus ’18 and starring Noah Stetson ’18 and Agnes Enkhtamir ’19, this performance perfectly embodies what a college performance should be. It is most importantly brilliantly timed and pertinent to the Yale College climate. This past academic year has seen both progression and a lack thereof: issues of sexual violence are mixed with the integration of single-sex groups. Therefore, a play investigating toxic masculinity and power structures is wildly relevant.
Stetson’s portrayal of John can only be described as tragically charming. Yes, his physical encounters with Carol range from uncomfortable and inappropriate to disgusting. Yet, you cannot help but realize that he simply cannot understand his predicament, nor the changing culture around him. Stetson perfectly conveyed the idea that John is hopelessly lost and rigidly ignorant.
Carol, a character difficult to portray due to her consistent yet subtle rise in agency, was manifest completely in Enkhtamir. Her ability to gradually grow more powerful was portrayed not just by the blocking and acting, but also Enkhtamir’s body language. At the beginning, she stood uneasily, frequently moving her feet around in the same spot. Yet, as the play continued, Enkhtamir stood firm in her new place of power.
In the former part of the play, the audience member would assume that Carol had been fed information from the “group” she references, assumedly an activist group or group of women who have faced similar issues. Yet, as the play continues and Carol grows more adamant and courageous, Enkhtamir seemed to believe the message she portrayed — her performance, particularly in the third scene, was awesome in the most literal sense of the word.
Director Konkus emphasized the realism the dialogue presents. The set was simple. Sound effects were minimalist, with drum sounds in between scenes. Lighting was similarly simple. This allowed the themes of toxic masculinity, unhealthy power dynamics and gender and racial discrimination to stand on their own strength. Konkus stressed that his goal as director was to start a conversation about toxic masculinity in university spaces and make people aware of its effects on women.
Konkus sets the play at Yale, explicitly shown by Carol’s costume in the second scene: her top says “Boola Boola.” Rather than adapt the setting and leave the impact there, Konkus also follows up the potential debate with a feedback section in the playbill. There are two checkboxes, one for Carol, one for John, below the question “who was wronged?” From the acting to the playbill, Konkus and the cast force the audience members to examine their own beliefs.
“Oleanna” is a widely controversial piece. It could be argued that Mamet could not understand the complexities Carol and other women face and have faced through unhealthy power dynamics and toxic masculinity. And it is easy for college students and theatre professionals alike to mishandle these sensitive themes and miss the message of the show. Yet, Konkus, Enkhtamir and Stetson tastefully and poignantly preach the tragic struggle women face both on college campuses and in institutions across the United States and the entire world. A show that will leave both men and women questioning their beliefs on toxic masculinity, gender-related justice and power dynamics across the sexes, “Oleanna” should be sold out every night; its viewing will benefit the Yale College community as a whole.
Nick Tabio | firstname.lastname@example.org