The representatives of famed playwright David Mamet moved swiftly to shut down a production of his drama Oleanna recently after only one performance. Why? Because the company kept secret, until the curtain rose, its decision to cast a male actor in the lead female role.
The 1992 play Oleanna centers on the violent tension between a professor and a female student who accuses him of sexual harassment, echoing the controversy a year earlier in which Anita Hill charged Supreme Court then-nominee Clarence Thomas with the same. The Alchemist Theatre in Milwaukee acquired the right to produce the play and proceeded to cast actor Ben Parman in the role of Carol, the student. They changed none of Mamet’s words; Parmen played the role as a male but was still referred to as “Carol.”
Mamet’s reps also nixed this, sending a cease-and-desist letter the day reviews of the show appeared. Blogger Ann Althouse points out that the play “is about the relationship between a male and a female. It’s specifically all about the male teacher/female student relationship. If it’s about 2 men, it’s a different story.” Not only that, but Alchemist must have known that the playwright wouldn’t approve – hence its secretiveness. Pundit from Another Planet blogged that concealing the casting choice also hinted at “an attention-seeking stunt,” which is very likely.
The theatre responded with a statement that read, in part, “We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender.” That’s disingenuous; the very fact that they auditioned Parman (and probably other males) for the role of Carol demonstrates that their gender experimentation was intentional. The statement continued:
When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral.
We stayed true to each of David Mamet’s powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story.
“Gender elasticity is the preoccupation of our time,” wrote Pundit from Another Planet. This is a sad commentary on a culture gone astray, because gender is “elastic” or “fluid” only in those with a narcissistic obsession with sexual identity.
Mamet is notoriously protective of his work and has dealt with similar casting attempts in his plays before. In 1999, his people shut down an all-female production in New York of his Goldberg Street, explaining that “David Mamet does not permit any gender changes.” In response, Thomas J. Brady objected in the Philadelphia Inquirer that “Gender-bending is nothing new in drama. Plays in ancient Greece were usually staged with men playing female roles. Shakespearean characters of both sexes were traditionally played by men or young boys.”
That’s different from the Alchemist situation. In those eras men were playing female roles costumed as women, and the audiences understood and accepted that those characters were to be viewed as female.
The difference in the Alchemist production is that Ben Parman was a male costumed as a male in a female role, playing either transgendered or no-gendered or any-and-all-gendered, it’s unclear which. The production’s director wrote that “On any given day, in any given act, Carol might identify as female or male or both or neither.” In any given act? So throughout the course of the play “Carol” is exhibiting multiple personalities?
Once a director makes that choice, the audience’s entire focus of the play, act by act, even moment by moment, shifts from the dramatic relationship of the two characters onstage and becomes instead: “Who or what is Carol, and why?” That element doesn’t “add to the impact of the story,” as the Alchemist owners put it; it dominates the story. This confusion may suit the misguided gender-erasing agenda of the production company, but anything that jars the audience out of their suspended disbelief, out of the tale itself, is detrimental to the story, and audiences deserve better than that.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/30/14)