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THEATER REVIEW: Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s “Oleanna”

It begins innocently enough, with university student Carol (Rachael VanWormer) in the office of Professor John (Francis Gercke). She says she’s flunking his course, doesn’t understand his lectures or his book and wants help.

John (who has just been recommended for tenure) is willing to help, but this day will find him distracted by phone calls from his wife and their real estate broker about the house they are buying.

He does what professors often do – off-the-cuff pontification, not really listening to Carol, in this case because of those phone calls. He says some things that could be misinterpreted. She takes notes.

They continue, Mamet-style, to talk past each other, until she finally bursts into tears. He puts an arm around her shoulders to calm her, but she wrenches herself free.

Soon there will be a report to the tenure committee citing sexual harassment charges and the the realization that the “he said/she said” argument may put John’s career in jeopardy.

Playwright David Mamet wrote “Oleanna” in 1992, on the heels of Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court.

Intrepid Shakespeare Company offers a tense, thought-provoking production in a very short run through Sunday in Encinitas. Christy Yael directs.

The title, by the way, refers to a failed Utopian community experiment in Pennsylvania in 1852. Set up for Norwegian immigrants, it was located in a place totally unsuitable for farming and collapsed a few years later.

Gercke and VanWormer are excellent foils for each other: he the distracted professor dividing his attention and losing concentration, who not only asserts but mentions his power; she the note-taking supplicant who may or may not be what she seems.

Yael (and Mamet) ratchet up the tension in this 80-minute power struggle, until the end leaves the audience fairly gasping for breath.

Did he or didn’t he, in the first instance? It’s for you to decide, but don’t miss these two fine actors at the top of their form.

The details

“Oleanna” plays through April 14 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre on the campus of San Dieguito Academy, 800 Santa Fe Drive in Encinitas.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (800) 718-4253 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.