Oleanna heightens blood pressure, provokes important discussion

Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs

Staff Writer

When a professor tries to consider every angle of an argument, attempting to rework academic jargon for a disheartened student, the conversation turns dangerous. Matchstick Theatre takes on David Mamet’s Oleanna, presented at The Box Toronto. 

Audience members be wary, the deconstruction of words and the implications behind the English language does make the play at times feel as though it is crawling along at snail speed. I left the show with heightened blood pressure and a desire to explore the phenomena of student-teacher allegations further.

When Carol (Lindsey Middleton) turns up at her professor’s office distraught over bad academic standings, she has one motive, to manipulate a system and its players, which she feels has gratefully wronged her. Starved for attention and dealing with a serious case of imposter syndrome, Carol dramatically breaks down and appears unable to comprehend all of the course material. This leads her professor John (Cameron Johnston) to extend his sympathies and comfort her concerns. 

Something is off. The overwhelmed student seems oddly preoccupied with her teacher’s proposed tenure and plans to buy a house for his family. John appears far too naive as mentor in an institution with clear boundaries between faculty and students to bend the rules. Still, the play starts off rather innocently, or so we think. John tries to rehash course concepts with Carol and encourages her to share what she doesn’t understand and what she wants from the course.

After cyclical arguments over semantics, the emotionally taxed student tries to walk out and John stops her. He extends an olive branch and apologizes for failing to connect with his student. He offers her an A for the course on one condition: she has to meet with him for private tutoring for the rest of the term.

The meeting is interrupted several times by relentless phone calls. We witness John on edge as he tries to sort out the details of his property investment. Everything relies on John’s tenure confirmation. Throughout the play, these phone calls serve as a third character, providing a glimpse into the vulnerability of the professor.

Johnston plays up his character with old-school academic charm. While he might enjoy revving Carol’s engine a little too much, it’s clear that his intentions come from an innocent place. He is motivated by his own distaste for the education system and simply desires to break down barriers for Carol, so much so that he is willing to dismiss rules to do so. 

By the nature of his position, John has structural power over his students. Tension hangs suspended on stage and we begin to wonder whether John’s glances over to Carol are merely his way of apologizing for taking each phone call or because Carol happens to be taking off her jacket. Johnston plays up on this balance with a commanding aura and gentleness.

Most of the backstory stems from these phone calls. Johnston does an impeccable job conveying the urgency of the tenure and the dream of a man who has finally made it in a desired career. He is both pensive and mildly embarrassed all at the same time. 

Under the direction of Jake Planinc the show is interestingly hard to predict. We see the conflict in front of us and yet we still question both characters’ backstories. As the play progresses, we grow very confused about what we have watched. 

Middelton plays to the more challenging role and does a wonderful job at making every audience member hate her character. One moment she appears on the verge of tears and the next minute she sneakily smiles as she selfishly whines and takes John’s comments drastically out of context. This is a multidimensional character who transitions from deeply insecure to darkly confident and manipulative. Carol has always had the upper hand. While she demands a fair and adequate education, she also chooses to exercise unearned power over the education system and men in general.

Carol returns to a shady unnamed student group and files a sexual harassment complaint in the wake of John's tenure proposal. Her smugness is puke-worthy as she twists John’s words and actions so extremely far from their intentions and context. As Carol grows more evil by the second, Middleton’s performance progresses into a quick and aggressive force not to be reckoned with. She baits and then frames John, even going as far as to strip him of his ability to dictate the reading list. Carol is one of the most frightening characters that I’ve had the pleasure of watching on stage in a while.

We watch John lose his house and we secretly root for him as he maintains integrity by refusing to change his course’s reading list when Carol attempts to bribe him. The suspense during this act is savoury and the audience is practically holding their breath as John grabs Carol by the hair and throws her to the ground. Choreographer David Chinchilla coordinated a reasonable and believable amount of physical violence for the scene. 

During the entirety of the performance we are not made to feel like John is guilty of Carol’s allegations. While we may try and rationalize the student’s anger from a feminist position, there is absolutely no question about who is right and who is wrong. Still, as the moral ruling of Jian Ghomeshi weighs on the hearts of Canadians, I found myself wanting to find any trace of truth. This is an uncomfortable conversation that should never be dismissed thanks to the Carols in the world. 

For more information visit http://matchsticktheatre.wix.com/oleanna.