She's Gotta Have It

Oleanna and Fabulation are two very different plays about power chicks.

It may come as a shock that not everyone immediately takes to David Mamet's unique universe. Yes, you may be happily treading life thinking that all must appreciate each of his carefully labored words. But then you head out to a production of Oleanna, Mamet's dense 1992 play about sexual harassment in academia, and you encounter grimaces and blank looks in the seats around you.

Granted, Oleanna isn't the favorite choice for most Mametites. They might speak first of Glengarry Glen Ross or American Buffalo or even movies like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner.

Despite Oleanna's opacity, though, Mosaic Theatre does it justice. A violent and (thankfully) concise drama, the play, in the hands of director Richard Jay Simon, makes even the grimacers gasp at the end.

Cataan and Kelts: Just who's the yappie fool here?
Cataan and Kelts: Just who's the yappie fool here?

In the university office of professor John (Heath Kelts), baffled student Carol (Ursula Cataan) has come to proclaim misunderstanding of just about everything happening in his class. Sitting in front of his desk throne, with her back to the audience through most of the first act, Carol is just an object whose mind is putty in the hands of this intellectual tyrant.

Their office conversation about education, however, proceeds to lead into a Mamet-like Matrix about sexual harassment and power. What starts out as mentorship may — or may not — be harassment. It isn't clear, even to the audience, what's happening. "We can only interpret the behavior of others through the screens we create," John says. The same goes for us.

Oleanna often feels like a preface to the man-woman power connections so recognized now as playwright Neil LaBute's trademark. If you draw a Venn diagram of the two writers, the circles might intersect on Oleanna and LaBute's The Shape of Things,both acidic and enigmatic parables about the reshaping of a man.

And, oh boy, does Carol reshape her professor. A phone call interrupting their first meeting betrays John's quickness to anger, a weakness Carol excites to lead him down a path of increasing desperation over the course of the three short acts of escalating violence. But is it her intention all along to lead him down this path? Again, it depends on your screen of interpretation.

Mosaic's actors fit right into recognizable Mamet cadence — with its lingual calisthenics and timing so contrived yet so righteous — especially Cataan, whose performance slightly echoes what you'd expect to have issued from Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife and the star (along with William H. Macy) of the original 1992 production. Cataan, though, also naturally fills her own impenetrably cool, calm, and destructive perspective.

Kelts, less Mamet-like, takes control of John in a softer and smoother interpretation than perhaps less confident actors might pursue. By the end, the formerly weak little girl no longer has her back to us. As John faces total loss because of her rape accusations, she dresses him down with "You little yappie fool" in a shock to the audience right before the final, chilling end.

In true Mamet fashion, however, rape isn't necessarily about physical rape but about the mental game of forced ideas, about how free discussion is never ultimately free.


On the other side of Plantation, with Brooklyn playwright Lynn Nottage's dead-center funny Fabulation (or The Re-Education of Undine), the Public Theatre again shows that it's the rare company in Broward/West Palm Beach with the balls to produce plays featuring ethnic diversity.

It's usually the case that you must drive south to Miami to get away from the pasty whiteness. Gauging happy audience reaction, though, Fabulation proves that at least some of those pasty whites also yearn to revel in the kind of diversity that truly represents our combined counties' population.

From her first appearance in a tight red power suit and four-inch heels, yelling into her phone and snapping her fingers at her secretary, you know you don't mess with Fabulation's 30-something PR executive Undine (Crystal Murphy). Despite her role as a powerful African-American woman, Undine derides the heritage of her black ancestors: "Their pain established me behind this very fine teak desk."

But Undine's breaking down. Her ne'er-do-well husband covertly moved out, along with her money. She's broke and also, she discovers, pregnant.

So Undine must move home to her parents' crowded apartment in the depths of Brooklyn, back to being Sharona, the affirmative action kid who made it to Dartmouth and then, after reinventing herself, claimed her family was killed in a fire.

Throughout Nottage's resulting morality play of the power and pitfalls of reinvention, Murphy is brilliant and unstoppable in her Candide-like adventure through poverty.

Even more unstoppable is the remarkable ensemble brought together on Public Theatre's minimalist stage by director Michael Yawney, and it's nearly impossible to single out any one of them as they roll through dozens of unique characters. Should the smarmy Argentine husband be singled out? The Yoruba priest who takes only cash for his prognostications? What about the heroin-shooting grandmother or the security-guard brother obsessed with Brer Rabbit? Or maybe we should note the drug-rehab literature professor who misses smoking crack in the university ladies room and reflects on her downfall: "Those thesis-writing motherfuckers. I wanted to kill them." Now, that's funny.

It doesn't take long to realize that Murphy and her six many-faced collaborators are playing as much for each other as for the audience, and the game just gets better and better as the minutes go by. It would be a crying shame if Nottage's play, with this director and cast, doesn't continue on somewhere past June 4.

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