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27 Nov 2005

Hart House Theatre is one of those too little known jewels in Toronto''s arts scene. It''s hard to tell until you actually walk down that dungeon-like path in the basement of Hart House that this building houses such a great theatre auditorium with so much history. As one walks through the downward-slopping hallway toward the theatre, the photographic evidence displaying countless classic plays dating all the way back to the first decades of the last century gives a great sense of history.

As we walk into the auditorium, I am immediately intrigued by the set. It represents John''s office -- one of the two lead characters who is a university professor. The set is slightly risen above the main stage floor and slightly tilting downward towards the audience. Almost giving you a sense that the actors will need to make a conscious effort to stay glued to the set so as not to fall onto the audience below. But grip to the stage they definitely do in more ways than one.

The story features UofT theatre student Kearsten Lyon as Carol, a young and somewhat naive university student, and Jamaican-born York MFA theatre graduate Richard Stewart in the role of John -- an accomplished university professor at the cusp much promise but with a lot to lose. The play, Oleanna, was written by David Mamet. In this three-act play, Mamet explores the topic of political correctness and sexual harassment. He leaves the audience free of making up their own mind as to who is right or wrong in this he-said-she-said tale.

The first act starts like a verbal train wreck. Carol, the young female student sits in front of her professor John and waits as he tries to wrap up a conversation with his wife. The nervousness and irritation in his voice are palpable. His wife is stressing him out about some sticky negotiation around their purchase of a new home. They don''t communicate well. One doesn''t listen to the other, and neither of them seem to get across to one another as they keep interrupting each other. Finally, he gets off the phone and begins to dialogue with his student Carol. The verbal banter and nervous intensity continue as Professor John can''t seem to grasp or understand what Carol is trying to say. Again, they interrupt each other and constantly ask each other: "Do you see?"

At this point, the audience starts to get it, this hectic verbal train wreck isn''t a sign of nervousness by the actors or the effects of a poorly written script. But, in itself, introduces in its erratic cadence both the state of mind and reality of the characters. Carol is almost paranoid about feeling ostracized in Professor John''s class. She doesn''t seem to "get it". She pulls out John''s book and starts reading passages from it. "What does that mean?" she asks. John at first tries to make his academic rationale clear to her; but soon, he empathizes with her frustration. He acknowledges that he also had those same feelings of being out of step with the university mantra as a young man. He offers to help her survive her scholastic anxiety by giving her an "A" automatically -- as long as she agrees to come see him on a regular basis, as he tries to help her make sense of it all. At one point, he puts his arm around her and offers his comfort.

Carol is confused. She wonders about any ulterior motives behind this most unorthodox offer. Not only does Professor John offer to help her understand his class, but he also goes into a diatribe about the evils and inadequacies of the educational system which has given him so much. He is currently being considered for full tenure at the college by the institutional board. One senses a love-hate relationship with the system through which he was able to rise amid much trials and tribulations. Carol doesn''t understand this contradiction. She is also confused with why he seems to put his own wife and child''s evident concerns on the side -- as the phone keeps ringing in the office.

Later in the play, she pushes his buttons by questioning his claim of love for his wife. Carol has accused him of taking advantage of his position to abuse of her naivety and even to attempt to rape her -- as he once forcibly tried to prevent her from leaving his office. She accuses him of hypocritically being all about the power of his position while ungratefully bashing the system which feeds him. Her accusations and actions threaten to take it all away.

Stewart and Lyon play these roles with amazing passion. They make both characters seem genuine and force us to look deep inside our prejudices and assumptions about those matters of political correctness from both sides of the fence. As the set changes between each act, showing a differing perspective of Professor John''s office, we are likewise challenged to truly look at all sides of the issues. The dramatic end of the play does one thing great ... it leaves you breathless and wanting more. But you are left to come up with your own conclusion as to how this tale ends.

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