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Duke City Rep presents Oleanna at the Filling Station

Oleanna
John Hardy and Amelia Ampuero
David Mamet's gender wars drama Oleanna usually divides audiences right down gender and generational lines. The play, first produced in 1992, pits a female undergraduate with a failing grade against a male professor going through tenure review. While lecturing her in language she can't understand, he's interrupted by a constantly ringing phone and his preoccupation with buying a house as a reward for tenure. By the second act, she's accused him of sexual harassment, and he's screaming "political correctness" at her. The premiere of Oleanna seemed ripped from real-life headline debates about Anita Hill's evidence against Clarence Thomas at Supreme Court hearings. The student-professor power struggle also reprises many Mamet plays but notably the power shift between the seasoned and apprentice actors in his A Life in the Theatre.

John Hardy plays John, the professor, as a desperate man being torn apart by women—on the constantly ringing phone his whining wife and his real estate agent dangling and withdrawing the house of his dreams, and in his office the student who cannot understand his lectures or his book. Hardy's every move and gesture conveys the trembling agony of the professor on the threshold of admittance to the inner sanctum of academia—tenure. Torn apart inside himself, Hardy has John posture the very pomposity he preaches against with grandiose rhetoric and vocabulary that fails to communicate with any of the women, whose refusal to understand him demolishes him. As the power shifts, Hardy visibly shrinks, cowers, pleads and blasts out an impotent fury that leaves him hollow and destroyed.

John Hardy brings to Duke City Rep an impressive national reputation as actor with professional tours, as director of over one hundred productions, as playwright with fifty productions of fifteen plays, as recipient of the Sara Spencer Award for lifetime achievement from the Southeastern Theatre Conference, as author of a book on acting and touring his one-man play Rattlesnake in which he plays sixteen characters.

Amelia Ampuero, who plays Carol, has studied with England's Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. An Albuquerque native, Ampuero is co-founder and artistic director of Duke City Rep, now in its inaugural season, which aims to bring accessible and compelling art to the community.

Ampuero's Carol first appears tongue-tied and curled almost into a fetal position, sitting awkwardly with back pack on the uncomfortable chair set out for students, her face furrowed into helpless self-flagellation. Everything John says reinforces her primal conviction that she's stupid and will never be able to understand him. When she at last rises out of her inarticulate terror in the first act to interrupt the barrage of professorial verbiage with a loud "I am speaking," the audience jolts as if struck by an electric current. As she gains power, Ampuero's posture and voice grow. No longer pulling at her sleeves to cover her hands, she snaps crisp manila folders of ultimatums on the professor's desk to emphasize that the power has shifted.

Under Guy Fauchon's laser beam direction the vulnerability and insecurity of both student and professor creates a knife-edge balanced match, even though power and privilege seem at first to be solely on the professor's side. The tension remains taut from breathless opening to the shocking final moments. Fauchon also foregrounds the play's focus on the essential theme of both theater and education—the reaching out across barriers of gender, class, race, insecurity, and inadequate language to communicate with another human being but somehow tragically missing the connection.

Fauchon has appeared on stage, film and TV internationally. He directed Duke City Rep's inaugural production, Trust, and will be performing in their next show, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol. His play, Syzygy, is being submitted to the Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival in 2011.

Charles Murdock Lucas has created a grimly claustrophobic closed box of a 1990 professor's office within the open space of the Filling Station Theater with no walls. Every detail, the battered metal desk and filing cabinet, the beige phone with coiled cord, the garish paperweight that John constantly fiddles with, suspend our disbelief: we are eavesdropping on a festering fight that nobody can win.

Oleanna was first produced by the Back Bay Theater Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May 1992 with William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon and then moved to the Orpheum Theater Off-Broadway. Harold Pinter directed the London premiere at the Royal Court Theatre. Since then it's been frequently performed at regional theaters. I confess that the original New York production left me furious at Mamet and the audience, who mostly sided with the professor. I don't know whether my revulsion against professorial pomposity or Macy's creation of a loathsome John prompted my fury back then, but 18 years later, Fauchon and the actors have created a tenuously balanced match in which both characters seem right and wrong. Seeing itself through prejudiced lenses becomes the play's focus.

Duke City Repertory Theatre is presenting Oleanna by David Mamet at The Filling Station, 1024 4th Street, Albuquerque, New Mexico (between Coal and Avenida Cesar Chavez) through October 24, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $20 for Adults and $12 for students, seniors, and military. For tickets email tickets@dukecityrep.com or call 505-797-7081. For information see www.dukecityrep.com.


Photographer: Elizabeth Dwyer Sandli

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-- Rosemary Keefe



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