Puerto Vallarta, Mexico - When the lights came up and the enthusiastic applause died down on the opening night performance of "Oleanna" at the Boutique Theatre, those in attendance were invited to weigh in on the meaning and message of this complex, intense two-person drama by celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet. The divergent and at times passionate opinions voiced by those in attendance gave evidence to the complexity and quality of this superb production.
Is the play about gender politics? Class, privilege, and power? Harassment, sexism, and violation? Educational abuse, academic freedom, and censorship? The dangers of groupthink? Justice for the oppressed? Political correctness gone amok? All of the above? Something else entirely?
Is professor John the well meaning but foolish victim of a set up? Or a self styled maverick who went too far and got his comeuppance - or a little of both? Is Carol a vulnerable and confused young student? Or a sly, note-taking entrapper - or both?
Everyone has an opinion, but no one has the answer because "the" answer doesnít exist. There are as many meanings in this multi-layered work as there are viewers who witness it. At the end of the evening we are left, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, with "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
Actors Michael Gibney and Maria Fontanals Novell, under the skillful eye of director Edoardo Rocha, dance this verbal tango to perfection.
Gibney - who has performed on stages from Scotland to south Florida, Philadelphia to New York City, San Miguel de Allende to Puerto Vallarta - embodies the professorial personality of John with a powerful performance that comes across as compelling but never heavy handed, convincing without being overstated, and gives us a fully realized character who evokes our sympathies despite his obvious flaws - or perhaps because of them. Gibneyís physicality on the stage, his range of facial expressions, and his skillful use of vocal intonation bring John alive with the confidence and nuance needed to carry off this highly demanding role.
The multi-faceted Fontanals comes to Vallarta from Barcelona via New York City, where she and Gibney performed together at the prestigious HB Studio. She takes us through the chameleon-like changes of young student Carol with a subtly and expressive grace that leaves us unsure whether to hug her in sympathy or throttle her in anger. Fontanals will completely disarm you with her performance but be on guard - she will leave you devastated in the process. Just ask John!
Rochaís direction is the best kind - subtle and sure. Never drawing attention to itself or seeming to be "staged," yet every detail has been carefully attended to. Set pieces and costume changes provide all the visual and symbolic cues needed to guide us as we follow these talented actors through their dizzying death spiral.
Rochaís blocking (carefully choreographed movements of the players across the stage) flows with a naturalness that almost defies detection as John and Carol move from formal positions of professor and student separated by Johnís authoritative desk during a routine office visit, to sharing a comfortable sofa and a beverage, to an intimate ottoman barely large enough to seat them both.
As Mametís signature staccato-style dialogue draws us under its spell, we find ourselves following the characters into their awkward intimacy asking: "Wait a minute, whatís going on here? Where is this heading?"
I wonít tell, I canít tell. Not just because you need to see this highly polished production for yourself, but also because the play and its outcome defy easy explanation. Ultimately, Mamet is making a statement about the limits of language and the inherent subjectivity of truth. (And, perhaps, about the damage done by foolishly answering the phone at all the wrong moments!)
Each of us in the audience will hear and see a different Oleanna because each of us brings a different set of assumptions, preferences, and life experiences with us to the theater. Mamet himself says it best when at one point he has John say to Carol, "We can only interpret the behavior of others through the screen we create."
There is much more that could be said about this sterling, polished production from No Name Productions, a new partnership of Rocha, Gibney, and Norma Schuh committed to bringing quality theater to town. But as Mamet demonstrates, words alone are never enough to tell the complete story. Some things in life simply must be experienced to be appreciated. This production of Oleanna is one of those things.
Oleanna is playing at Puerto Vallartaís newly relocated and expanded Boutique Theatre, Ken and Karrie Sebrykís labor of love on Basilio Badillo at Naranja. Thanks to their determination, Puerto Vallarta finally has a comfortable, intimate performance venue where every seat is a good seat and lights and sound are top notch. (The theater is air conditioned but not while the actors are performing, for the sake of sound quality, so dress casual and light!)
Oleanna runs December 5th through the 9th with an 8 pm start time, except Sunday where there will be a 5 pm matinee. The Friday performance will be followed by an opportunity to share perspectives and reactions to the drama with members of the production.Tickets are $250 pesos and are available for purchase at: the Saturday Co-op Market at Paradise Community Center, 9 am - 1 pm; NV Bookstore - 216 Basilio Badillo; Boutique Theatre Box Office - 330 Naranjo - one hour before every show; and on-line through the Boutique Theatre website via PayPal.