In the adroit hands of The Sting and Honey Company, the recent production of David Mamet’s Oleanna, a controversial 1992 two-hander drama, was a riveting success.
Directed by Javen Tanner, artistic director and founder of the company, who stars as John, a university professor up for tenure, and Suni Gigliotti as Carol, a student, the play delves into the abuses of the power dynamic relationships between teacher and student. Bijan J. Hosseini served as assistant director for this production.
But, it really ends up being a lot more, especially about power and authority in language, vocabulary and rhetoric, as this newest production handled skillfully. At the time when the play premiered more than 30 years ago, many focused on contextualizing the play on terms of Anita Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, audiences and some critics found it difficult to make sense of the play’s title, which referred to the utopian commune in Norway that Ole Bull, a violinist and composer, founded with his wife, Anna, in the mid-19th century. Later, Mamet would add an epitaph comprising several lyrics from the folk song that later was popularized by Pete Seeger.
Mamet would comment frequently that the play was not about education but instead was intended as a broader statement about human interactions and the function of power in our relationships. Fortunately, the two actors in The Sting and Honey Company excel at proving just how deep the play goes into portraying the abuses of the teacher-student relationship, which really have undermined the integrity of academia. The irony is captured in crystal clear terms in this production. Contrary to expectations early in the play, Carol ends up mastering the deceitful intellectual bullying to which her professor has subjected her and turns it toward him with devastating effect.
And, this was the prime strength of this production, as Tanner and Gigliotti render so well on stage. Carol succeeds in appropriating her professor’s rhetorical strategies so strongly that she upends the hierarchy in the teacher-student relationship. This is what the play really becomes, contra Mamet’s intentions. Forget the more convenient headlines referring to sexual harassment, political correctness, or the masculine figure who is beleaguered by what he sees as postmodern threats.
The most telling setup for this comes early in the play. John is talking to his wife on the phone supposedly about a snag in the negotiations for a house they are planning to buy. But, as we learn, it is merely a diversion to convince John to come to the house because his wife has organized a surprise party to congratulate him on his tenure and promotion.
Meanwhile, Carol is in his office who overhears the discussion her professor is having with his wife. The phrase — “a term of art” — pops up and when John is done with his call, Carol presses him to explain what it means. John fumbles badly in trying to explain it but it also exposes how various professional communities consistently privilege themselves by the specialized jargon they use to signify their position and power in their respective community. Both characters struggle with this: Carol trying to fit in the ivory tower of academia and John in attempting to close the real estate deal because he is unfamiliar with all of the legalistic argot of that field.
The tensions ratchet up steadily and by the time we come to the event where John loses it and crosses the line into physical violence and scorching verbal abuse — a scene played with undeniable credibility by both actors — the events have become so disturbing and ambiguous that the play’s ending is left open to be debated vigorously, as has been the case since its premiere. And, Mamet seems to prefer it that way.
When the play, which also was adapted to the cinematic screen in 1994, premiered, reviews noted that some audiences cheered the moment when John attacked Carol. But, others said that the play ended up going the other way, in support of the student’s position. There also is a secret about Carol’s life in her childhood which would suggest a more illuminating path for assessing the experiences of both characters equally and in reconciling our own reactions to this play’s ending.
Of course, Mamet refused to offer any backstory for either character. Nevertheless, Tanner and Gigliotti accomplish an astute reading of the script that suggests both are victims of illusion who erroneously believed that what they saw, respectively, as being empowered by the rhetoric of patriarchal hierarchy or feminism. Ultimately, both characters suffered tragically in their personal defeats.