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Venue: USC Lab Theatre

September 16-18, 2011

If you leave the theatre thinking, “I don’t know” after this play, that’s the point. The Lab Theatre at USC always delivers thought-provoking performances, and this is definitely one. David Mamet’s drama centers around two characters – the only actors in the play: one a professor, the other his female student who accuses him of sexual harassment. The accusation happens offstage, and between the first and second act the student takes an entirely different role. She switches from the struggling student who doesn’t understand to the one who “understands” and wields power over him. The concepts the professor tries to convey in his class are those that he thinks will be beneficial to this student, if he can make her understand… but he steps onto a slippery slope when he asks her to come to his office and offers to begin the course over with him in private so that she can make an “A”. Although his intentions were well-intended, in this world of hyper-sensitive feminist equality, any slight condescension to a female can be taken as sexist and chauvinist. His mutual understanding of her struggle quickly turns into empathy when she begins to cry in his office. It is the moment that he tries to physically console her, and again when his frustration turns to rage, that will cost  the professor his tidy life he has worked up to the top ring of the education institutional ladder to achieve. All this because of a couple careless actions. Yet as an audience we empathize with her as well, forced to listen to his personal rampage. As we should – what student would want to hear him declare the institution of higher education is a waste of time, yet proceed to justify his tenure position? These are part of the aggravations the students takes into her own hand to “teach him a lesson” when she suddenly gets smart and realizes she has power over his tenure committee – with the help of his superiors and lawyers. This power struggle becomes about more than the institution of higher education, which the professor is questioning in the first act, and more a power struggle of the sexes. Where must the line lien in hetero-gender higher education systems? Where the line should be drawn between the student/professor relationships can become complicated when the professor wants his students to relate to him and vice-versa. When is it appropriate for the teacher to try to help student who is struggling by taking a personal interest in them or attempting to take them under his wing when he sees something common with them? How long must this communication gap exist among the sexes in formal settings? Whose word do you take when things happen behind closed doors? These are just some of the questions Mamet brings up in Oleanna. The New York Times is quoted to have said that this short drama “evokes, however crudely, what one might wish to escape from: a sexual battleground where trust and even rational human discourse between men and women are in grave jeopardy.”

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