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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014
Arts & Music

‘Oleanna’ examines professor-student harassment on St. Pete stage


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Playwright David Mamet’s powerful and thought-provoking drama “Oleanna” opens tonight as an independent production at the freeFall Theatre Company’s auditorium.

Sparks fly and emotions run high in a battle of wills and personalities when a university professor and a female student clash in what is arguably Mamet’s most controversial stage work.

The play is not part of the freeFall season and is being produced and directed by Brandon Windish, a Tampa-based independent television and commercial director who has written and directed more than 100 commercials and music videos across the United States, as well as internationally.

Also an actor in Tampa Bay area productions, Windish says he has long been fascinated by “Oleanna” and approached freeFall for the space because “it’s important that individual artists have a chance to give voice to the beautiful language” of plays like this one.

Taking the name from a failed 19th Century Norwegian immigrant community in Pennsylvania and a popular folk song that mocked the notion of an American utopia compared to Norway, Mamet may be suggesting that humans often fail to live in ideal harmony.

Chris Rutherford, actor (Jobsite’s “Rabbit Hole”) and assistant theater manager at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor campus, plays the college professor, John.

Emily Belvo (Hat Trick Theatre’s “Unnecessary Farce,” “Hamlet” and “Proof’) portrays the student, Carol.

The story unfolds in three acts: At first the professor appears dismissive and distracted when the struggling student comes to his office for academic help. She seems vulnerable, and he softens and their conversation turns personal.

In Act Two, she has filed a harassment complaint against the professor, jeopardizing his career, his tenure and a raise that would pay for a new house (his utopia?). She is more assertive, and he is defensive. In Act Three, things get really ugly, and there’s a shocking ending.

Windish says he and the actors are taking care not to favor either. “Our focus is on equal balance and then let the audience decide,” he says. “It’s not black and white. It’s a gray world. These are people with human flaws.

“I remember the first time I saw this play,” says Windish. “It creates a lot of discussion. When it came out in 1992, some people thought that it was inspired by the confirmation hearings on (Supreme Court) Justice Clarence Thomas that brought up the issue of sexual harassment, but I think Mamet was writing about two people who cannot communicate with each other.”

During Thomas’ confirmation hearings in 1991, Anita Hill, a former special assistant to Thomas when he worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, testified that he made inappropriate sexual comments, which he denied.

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