Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Hello, Dolly! and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Rachel Brumfield and Peter Cunniff
Photo by Renee Ashlock
David Mamet's Oleanna may have first premiered more than 25 years ago but it's just as powerful and relevant today in our #metoo world where accusations of sexual misconduct are an almost daily occurrence. The play brings up many topics of conversation but it's also a difficult one to watch at times and I have some quibbles with Mamet's somewhat convoluted plot and slightly undefined characters. Fortunately, with assured and skilled direction and two actors who find nuance and depth in the characters they portray, Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's production will likely make you ponder and discuss the explosive situations Mamet has crafted and the motives and actions of his characters.

The plot focuses on a series of three private meetings that take place in the office of John, an older male professor. Carol, a young female college student, is concerned that she is failing his class, stating that she doesn't understand the concepts he brings up or what anything means, and that she feels incompetent. John, who is distracted by a series of phone calls about an impending home sale and word on his potential tenure, is callous and smug but since he feels like they are similar and that he "likes her" he does have some empathy for Carol's predicament. He also says that if she agrees to continue to meet with him privately to discuss the material in his course, he'll let her start all over again and even give her an "A." When he puts his arm around her and encroaches on her personal space, Carol clearly feels threatened, but do John's actions constituent sexual harassment or are his intentions honest?

Over the three scenes we see how privilege and entitlement give someone a feeling of power they can use to control others and how there is a potential for abuse. But that power can shift as perceptions, confrontations and accusations of misconduct change who is in control and who has the upper hand.

On the surface, Mamet's play seems to be a vehicle to show both sides of perceived sexual harassment, but he also explores other topics, such as how miscommunication can have destructive side effects and how sexual politics and political correctness can be viewed differently based on the individual's past experiences. However, Mamet's signature clipped style of speech, which he claims is how people actually speak, makes the piece a bit hard to get into at first, and comes across as very unrealistic to me. Fortunately, most of that style of dialogue goes away after the first half of the first scene and it does actually add to the idea of two people who are finding it difficult to get through to each other and how language and communication can be a barrier.

Also, most times when we hear of a sexual harassment accusation, we aren't privy to the actual details behind it and are only knowledgeable of the conflicting "he said, she said" remembrances of the event. In Oleanna, Mamet puts us in the room where it happens and we witness the events as they play out. While this theatrical element makes for a forceful play, Mamet appears to have us believe from the onset, by the events and actions we observe the characters make, that one party is more guilty than the other. That may be his intention, but he also uses a succession of phone calls John receives as a barrier to not fully allow us to get a clear understanding of the events in the characters' pasts, especially Carol's, that could give more meaning and insight into their actions and their culpability. There are also a few plot points that don't ring true, with the most obvious one being that these two people would continue to have private meetings even after Carol accuses John of misconduct and after she gets coaching from a group on campus and a lawyer, who I can't imagine would allow her to have a private meeting with someone she has accused of a serious crime. However, those items only add to the discussion that you will most likely have afterwards about the play, the plot, and the characters.

Virginia Olivieri's accomplished and precise direction derives realistic and nuanced performances from Peter Cunniff and Rachel Brumfield, who are excellent in portraying these flawed individuals. Olivieri instills the piece with expert pacing that ratchets up the tension as the play progresses. There are a couple of violent moments that are very directed with a forceful sense of realism, and Cuniff and Brumfield expertly depict the shifting dynamics in this disparate duo's relationship.

At first, Brumfield allows us to see Carol as someone who is mousy and unsure of herself, with a difficultly in her ability to express herself clearly. As the play progresses and the accusations fly, we see through Brumfield's assured performance how Carol finds strength and comes across as more well-spoken and educated. These two very different views of Carol make us question if this is how she has always been and if she's been hiding her true abilities and has ulterior motives for her actions, or if she's found clarity in the events and her dealings with the campus group who, it seems, is behind some of her accusatory decisions.

When the play begins, Cunniff clearly paints John as an abrupt, interruptive and somewhat demeaning individual who could also be called sexist and elitist, based on your perceptions of his actions. John also doesn't appear to be a great teacher and Cunniff plainly shows us in his body language and manner of speech how John is unable to get his points across and find a connection with Carol. Once Carol accuses John of misconduct, Cunniff beautifully portrays how John is confused that his actions could have been perceived that way. Yet, as the accusations pile up and his livelihood and future are put into jeopardy, Cunniff allows us to see, in a very realistic way, how this sends John to a breaking point. From Cunniff's superb portrayal, you truly feel for John and what he's up against. I've seen Cunniff in several plays and musicals in town and this is his best performance to date.

Olivieri and Rick Sandifer's set design represents a realistic office of a college professor and Richard "Mickey" Courtney's costumes are character appropriate. The lighting design by Stacey Walston works well for the shifting tones in the piece, especially for the numerous phone calls John receives.

Does John behave inappropriately and deserve to have his life torn apart? Is Carol only acting out of spite or is John truly sexist, and what are Carol's motives behind her actions? The events in the play and the ideas that Mamet brings up will challenge you and may even force you to change your perspective on the issues it depicts. Oleanna is a provocative play and Desert Stages' production makes for an insightful and thought provoking study.

Oleanna runs through November 17, 2019, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets and information are available at or by phone at 480-483-1664.

Director: Virginia Olivieri
Costume Design: Richard "Mickey" Courtney
Set Design: Virginia Olivieri & Rick Sandifer
Lighting Design: Stacey Walston
Sound Design: Emma Walz
Props: Ellie Steward
Hair & Make-Up: Virginia Olivieri
Stage Manager: Stephanie Vlasich

John: Peter Cunniff
Carol: Rachel Brumfield

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