Local theater group hopes to foster debate through "Oleanna"

sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com

“Oleanna” focuses on two people talking within the confines of a university professor’s office. But it’s also a crescendo of tension crafted with the intent of generating passionate discussion at a time where such discussion is ubiquitous.

“There’s just been a lot more debating as of late,” said Quentin Bembower, who portrays John, the play’s professor. “This is definitely an opportunity for it. You really have to listen to what they say.”

That’s something that can be hard for anyone, particularly in a culture that often prioritizes yelling one’s own point over listening to the counter. But “Oleanna,” written in 1992 by “Glengarry Glen Ross” scribe David Mamet, aims to challenge through its story of a college professor seeking tenure who is accused of sexual harassment by a student.

“There’s so much political content in it,” said 22-year-old director Brianna Allen.

The play’s heavy subject matter and the way it wrestles with dynamics of power and doubt all but guarantee polarized opinions toward its characters. But it tackles mixed signals and miscommunications so that, perhaps, those in the audience might avoid similar conflicts in their own lives.

“For me, it’s communication. Communication is always something someone can work on,” Allen said. “That’s one of the main reasons that I love this show.”

Bembower said “Oleanna” is a largely unknown work, despite the fame of the playwright behind it. Most people he’s spoken with about the play were previously unfamiliar with it.

“This is definitely a show that a lot smaller communities normally wouldn’t be exposed to,” he said. While some plays revel in the surreal, “Oleanna” aims to be a realistic portrayal of a plausible struggle. “This is very real life stuff that literally everyone can relate to.

“That’s what theater is all about, the imitation of real life,” Allen added.

A grassroots effort

It’s an actor’s play, challenging performers to find ferocity in subtlety as they tackle Mamet’s distinct style that relies heavily on mile-a-minute dialogue. Allen said it opens up opportunities to grow for the actors.

“These guys have worked really hard and I’m just excited for everyone to see it,” she said.

Amanda Trahant, 17, plays college student Carol in the play. It marks her first time with Clear Theater, but far from her first foray into the art form. She usually tackles musicals, although she did dabble in drama as Anne Frank at 13. But “Oleanna” is different yet, a zeitgeist of the here and now.

“I’ve never done a play like this before,” Trahant said. “This is a very relevant show.”

She said the play’s power struggle is relatable, and she reiterated the focus on the importance of communication.

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” Trahant said.

Clear Theater’s young members rely heavily on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram to generate buzz. The shows are financed through crowdfunding on Indiegogo. The production design behind “Oleanna” is distinctly simple. The set consists of a desk, a futon and a couple of chairs. Costume changes are minimalist.

“I think it adds so much when you have a lower budget and you’re not completely focused on the set and costumes,” Allen said. “You get a chance to really delve into the characters’ lives more.”

Last September, more than 400 people attended the collective’s inaugural play, “The Odd Couple.” They hope for a similarly enthusiastic response with their second outing.

“My big thing with this show is finding connections with people,” Allen said. “I just hope that people will talk about it. That’s the really great thing about theater.”

Want to go?

Clear Theater Collective presents “Oleanna” 6 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday inside the Williamsburg Regional Library Theatre. Admission is free. Donations are encouraged.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

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