May 13, 2003

University Theater shows versatility

This past Sunday night, University Theater (UT) got its shot at its own installment in the Festival of the Arts. The evening featured three segments, and three different sides, of theater at the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend J.D. Barton's magic show, which began the festivities at 6 pm. However, I was able to see the two staged readings that concluded the evening, and which contrasted with one another in just about as many ways as possible.

The first reading was of Oleanna, the knockout play written by David Mamet, which was later adapted into a movie by the playwright himself. Director Jenny Williams used minimalist set and lighting in the intimate confines of the UT Design Lab, the former UT set-production shop that is now used as rehearsal and classroom space. Due to the limited space, only a handful of people could attend the performance, with only about 20 seats placed on one side of the room. It was a shame that more people weren't able to witness a story whose impact only gradually dawns on the viewer.

The play consists of three acts, with each of the acts opening on the same basic set: a college professor sitting at his desk, with his attractive female student sitting downstage right of him. When we first see this scene, the college student (Anastazja Wiechkowki) has merely come to ask for help during her pretentious professor's (Adam Bronson) office hours. However, this scene quickly changes in tone and circumstance, as the second act sees the student trying to sabotage the professor's attempt to secure tenure. The third act sees their relationship completely disintegrate, as the vengeful student brings serious legal action against her frazzled teacher.

Mamet's play delves deep into the dangerous world of political correctness, as he shows, with deftly-written, naturalistic dialogue, how easily one's words and actions can be interpreted completely differently by another person. The actors, and director Williams, did not cut any corners in presenting this very topical social dilemma, and the audience felt itself being tossed across lines of allegiance just as easily as one's memory is contorted to fit to what one desires to remember.

After the intense societal incising of Oleanna, Tennesse Williams' Camino Real came as a fresh breath of absurdist air. While Mamet writes to paint his actors into corners, forcing them to stammer and free themselves out of verbal Gordian knots, playwright Williams plays to the most verbose instincts of his performers. All I can tell you with any certainty about the play is that it involves a former champion boxer named Kilroy, and a veritable army of UT all-stars, all under the capable direction of Deborah Wolfson. The cast reveled in Williams' language, never letting a turn of phrase or inscrutable action go unmilked for laughs.

While still fewer people were on hand for Camino Real, those in attendance (or involved) in both plays witnessed two distinct facets of University Theater, both of which showcased the high level of acting, directing, and innovation that UT brings to every production.