A controversial, 26-year-old David Mamet play seems like an unlikely spark for nuanced discussion of hot-button topics.
But that’s exactly what Enrique Bravo was hoping for and what he got when he picked “Oleanna” to be the latest play in the Black Box series at Perseverance Theatre.
The play, which opened Thursday and concludes with a Sunday matinee, concerns allegations of sexual misconduct in a collegiate setting.
“The thing I appreciate about theater is with these difficult conversations, instead of someone thrusting a point of view on you, you can watch a play, and you can talk about it,” said Bravo, who is actor-in-residence for the Perseverance Theatre and director of the play.
The Black Box series, Bravo said, is an opportunity for younger actors to gain experience.
He said the wordy play with one setting was a good fit for that as well, as the confines for the area often used as rehearsal space.
Bravo said he heard discussions after the Thursday opening, and there were murmurs among audience members Saturday evening after the play’s conclusion.
The direction of those conversations may differ from the ones that “Oleanna” inspired when it debuted in 1992, in the immediate wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy.
That’s because of conscious decisions made by performers and the director regarding tone.
The play depicts a series of closed-door meetings between a tenure-seeking college professor and a female student.
Bryan Crowder portrayed the college professor, whose pursuit of advancement and homelife are rocked by allegations of misconduct leveled by a student, Carol, portrayed by Erika Bergren.
In the past, performances of the play, as well as Mamet, have been criticized for their takes on political correctness and accusations of misconduct.
“A lot of people have issues with Mamet in general, which is something I had to get past,” Bravo said.
Before rehearsals, Bravo, Crowder and Bergren sat down and discussed how to perform the material in a way that was sympathetic to the female character’s perspective and move it away from overt commentary on political correctness.
“The way I’ve been explaining it to people is this play really shows what happens when two parties engage and refuse to listen to each other,” Crowder said.
The portrayals in the Black Box production made it possible to see each character’s perspective while still laying initial fault at the feet of the authority figure.
Crowder’s professor initially dripped slimy condescension and strident pretension before squirming when his conduct was placed under the microscope of a tenure committee and the law.
Bergren’s Carol began the play as an earnest wallflower before blooming and booming with righteous anger.
However, later she adopted the dismissive tendencies shown early on by her instructor.
“I thought our performance was absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Bergren said.
While the emotions and events of the play are decidedly not lighthearted, Bergren and Crowder said it is fun to perform.