centerRing, 5339 SE Foster, 788-3389, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, closes Dec 17, $10-12
Tribe Theatre has new digs at the centerRing, a hippie enclave on SE Foster that also houses a vegan coffee shop and a naturopathy joint. For their first production in this harmonious setting, Tribe has selected one of the thornier works of popular American theater: David Mamet's Oleanna. Writing in response to the Anita Hill trial, Mamet indicts Old Guard sexism, and the humorless witch trials conducted in the name of political correctness.
Structurally, the play is simplicity incarnate: three acts, two people, one room, and a textbook buildup of tension resolved in a violent outburst. Within this simple framework is a ruthless and beautifully constructed exploration of identity politics and perception.
Carol is a young college student who approaches her professor, John, for help in a course. She seems awkward and inarticulate, allowing John to dominate the conversation. He positions himself as a mentor, offering to change Carol's grade in the course to an A if only she will meet with him again. Shockingly, Carol proceeds to file a formal complaint against John, accusing him of elitist and sexist behavior including inappropriate sexual touching.
Mamet's characters hedge and stammer, interrupting each other and repeating themselves. These linguistic contortions are essential, as rhetoric and conversational power dynamics fuel Oleanna. Sabra Choi brings a disarming earnestness to the role, handling Carol's transformation from a stammering schoolgirl to a party-line spouting activist with aplomb. Michael J. Teufel plays John as a well-intentioned representative of the Old Guard, clinging to the power and privilege to which he unconsciously feels entitled.
Problems with this production are of the splitting-hairs variety: In the first act director Robert Bonwell Parker has John touching Carol with a frequency that undermines the complexity of the text. A restrained hand would have made her victimization more subtle and thus more interesting. The lighting is also heavy-handed, limited to "bright" and "dim," and corresponding a little too simplistically to the shifting emotional range of the dialogue. Ultimately, however, Tribe's Oleanna is a solid production of an intriguing script.