Blair Baker at the BRT in Oleanna
by Cate Murway
Because excellent theater productions can push the boundaries with gripping drama and grimly disturbing content, they often evoke heated conversations after the anything but standard banal presentations.
Bristol Riverside Theatre opened its 2012-2013 mainstage season with the riveting drama, Oleanna by Pulitzer Prize winner David Alan Mamet on September 25th. Performances will run through this Sunday, October 14th.
Directed by BRT’s Artistic Director Keith Baker, the academic power play features actors Blair Courtney Baker and David Browning Barlow.
Blair’s parents are Douglas C. Baker, the Producing Director of Center Theatre Group L.A.’s Theatre Company; and dancer/actress Wendy A. Baker, the Executive Director of the Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. They met during a tour of the 1975 musical, A Chorus Line when her mother was a line dancer and her dad was the company manager.
Blair is engaged to the playwright and lyricist, Zac Kline.
Coincidentally, the imperious, successful director running the audition in The Chorus Line is named Zach.
Blair has aspired to be an actress since the age of 12. She attended the dynamic L.A. County High School for the Arts, where she nurtured her dream and learned to embrace and excel in the arts.
She decided that she “wanted to learn her acting chops in the city”, NYC.
She headed to Atlantic Theatre Conservatory in Chelsea. The Atlantic Theatre Company Acting School founded in 1985 by David Mamet and William H. Macy, operates as both a private conservatory and an undergraduate program in conjunction with NYU. It is the only conservatory program in the world that offers in-depth training in Mamet and Macy's unique and influential approach to the acting profession: Practical Aesthetics.
“Blair is a vibrant, young actress who’s subtle and specific acting style easily translates from stage to screen.” from a review.
Oleanna is written by the Atlantic Theatre Conservatory co-founder, David Mamet.
BB, as she is sometimes dubbed, “loved the play”.
Blair Baker as Carol, recreates the role she performed in the Broadway and Mark Taper Forum productions of Oleanna. She also understudied the role on Broadway.
The natural redhead with the unique voice exclaimed, “I finally get to play the role!”
She also took full advantage of the incredible opportunity to participate in the intense 8 week RADA Summer Shakespeare based workshops in London. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts is a world-renowned centre of excellence, offering the best possible facilities and exceptional teaching in a diverse community united by a shared passion for theatre.
“I was floored by the talent and quality of work.”
She played the main character, Prospero, the overthrown Duke of Milan, in the William Shakespeare play The Tempest, conjuring up a storm, the eponymous tempest.
The role of the magician, Prospero is perfect for an experienced “male Shakespearean actor but it was really fun”!
Through actually performing the text, Blair discovered an affinity with the characters and a relish for the language.
The stage is set. It’s a Friday afternoon on a college campus and the actors apparently each have a different sense of justice. Struggling student Carol is confrontational and words are power in this play.
The play does not give all the answers and you may leave with a lot of questions.
There are no definitive conclusions and it can bore into your brain.
Blair commented, “This is one of the strongest women’s parts, a really difficult part and the story is in the professor’s favor. The play will be a different experience for every audience and much is left to interpretation. It deals with a lot of hot issues. The characters are making unpopular decisions”.
David Browning Barlow makes his BRT debut in the very demanding role as the Professor, John.
David gave the character the last name of Browning for a “secret piece of me in the play”.
Oleanna, by the way, is an ambiguous allusion to a 19th century utopian society in Pennsylvania called Oleana, named after its Norwegian founder, a famous violinist, Ole Bull and his mother, Anna. [Ole+Anna= Oleana] The community failed.
"It starts out in an incredibly cerebral arena and devolves into two caged animals," says David Barlow, of his character John's interactions with Blair Baker's Carol, in "Oleanna."
Oh to be in Oleanna,
That's where I'd like to be
Than to be in Norway
And bear the chains of slavery.
In the printed version of Oleanna, Mamet included this verse as an epigraph to the play
David Barlow stated, “Blair is a delight to work with and I feel so lucky to have a sparring partner in an intellectual arena. I always trust her to bring it.”
Several playwrights are on his proverbial ‘Bucket List’.
“David Mamet is one of them. This is a good challenging part. It requires a lot of the actor entering with determination and to grow as an actor.”
“All an actor needs is: will, bravery and common sense.” – David Mamet, American playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and film director.
The Bristol Riverside Theatre in historic Bristol on the Delaware has proven a perfect location for both of the actors.
Blair shared that the “Auditions were in NYC. I took the train in and walked to the BRT. The first awesome building I saw was the Post Office.”
David enjoys “Waking up to the Delaware River every day. The sleepy town engages me in solitude. The role is very demanding and I can hole up with my script.”
“Oleanna” runs through Oct. 14, 2012.
Bristol Riverside Theatre
120 Radcliffe Street
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By Dante J.J. Bevilacqua
Published: Monday, October 08, 2012
BRISTOL - The debate over what constitutes an abuse of power between a male authority figure and a female subordinate isn't going away. And the gripping new production of “Oleanna” at the Bristol Riverside Theatre reinforces how tricky and multilayered that issue can be.
Written as what seemed like a response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill circus of 1991 and the stranglehold of political correctness that was peaking around that time, the play remains provocative.
At the time, many saw David Mamet’s powerful dialogue as a backlash against the excesses of political correctness and the women's movement. BRT’s skillful staging offers a pair of powerhouse performances by Blair Baker and David Barlow, wherein the terms of combat are more equal and the outcome more ambiguous.
Today, it becomes more of a mesmerizing analysis of how language can be twisted, interpreted and used to often self-delusional and deceitful ends. Language has power and control — the inescapable pull of words and their ability to confuse, confound and betray when wielded carelessly or with malice.
The nicely executed production with these two great performers is intense and tension-filled in all the right ways.
Mamet is known for writing great character conflict and sharp, biting dialogue. His plays (“Speed-the-Plow,” “American Buffalo,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”) generally show uncomfortable situations through which his characters must navigate using whatever tools necessary to achieve their final goals. And sometimes that means head-to-head combat, verbal and otherwise.
Mamet loves liars, ingénues with dubious motives and people who speak in sentence fragments. He's been known to favoer ringing phones, claustrophobic work environments and small casts. If that is what you expect, you won’t be disappointed here.
“Oleanna” is a play about people for whom language is a conditioned reflex. They don’t think before they speak, even when they believe they do. A series of encounters between John, a professor on the verge of landing tenure, and Carol, a student on the verge of failing his class, the play is essentially an extended conversation. But it is shaped by the understanding that all conversation is potentially dangerous.
Carol comes to John’s office, distraught, to ask for a passing grade. Though preoccupied with his approaching tenure confirmation and plans to buy a new house, he decides to help her. What happens next is a matter of individual interpretation, even though we see exactly what happens.
What's clear is that John says and does things that could be construed — or misconstrued — as inappropriate. When Carol emerges in the following scene, she has discussed these things with other people, and she reveals her conclusions to John with a righteous indignation that contrasts sharply with her previous mousiness. Continued...
As John alternately tries to refute and appease her, he digs a deeper hole for himself. By the end, anyone wishing to could paint him either as a smug brute or the victim of a feminist monster. But what Barlow and Baker’s performances suggest is that John and Carol may be victims, less of each other than of a failure to communicate.
The phone, which regularly cuts into their confrontations, becomes another character as Barlow creates an entire life — nagging but beloved wife, helpless lawyer, disintegrating home — at the other end of the line.
Mamet is verbose and the dialogue is frequently heavy and not terribly easy to digest. It’s not challenging in an overly sophisticated way, but you do have to pay attention.
If there’s any flaw in the directorial vision of Keith Baker, it’s that he tends to slant a bit toward the innocence of John, steering the character into sometimes dangerously likeable territory.
In scene two, Carol is back at John's invitation to discuss a sexual harassment complaint she filed to the tenure committee. Why either party would consent to a second private audience after such a grievance had been aired is unclear. Why they would then opt for the third encounter that constitutes scene three is even less so, and just one reason "Oleanna" is more an intellectual construct than a completely credible dramatic situation.
Almost every thought is fragmented and every second word either bitten off or interrupted. This “Oleanna” may leave you breathless. The quick pacing of the work negates a measured interpretation that would leave you time to breathe and weigh and calibrate the arguments of its irrevocably opposed characters.
Barlow registers the professor as a vulnerable figure. His John is pompous, patronizing, self-deluding and, for all his Socratic questioning, as much the prisoner of his intellectual clichés as Carol is.
Baker appears to have strolled directly into the theater from the nearest classroom. She is a natural as the manipulative contemporary femme fatale, using her studiousness rather than her attractiveness as her chief weapon of exploitation.
BRT’s version of “Oleanna” is effectively chilling while giving you the feeling of a trap closing in. It has lost none of its provocative power and is bound to inspire animated conversations long after the curtain falls.
Audience views on this production of “Oleanna” will no doubt be tied to their views on sexual assault allegations. It will be sure to expose some uncomfortable reactions from the audience members, which is a product of the play's continuing vitality.
This production gets at the heart of the play, and that's no small feat. The Mamet rhythms, the high-pitched emotions, the overlapping dialogue are all here.
As it stands, it’s a welcome opportunity to see a pair of brilliant performers at the top of their game.
Bristol Riverside Theatre
120 Radcliffe Street
Bristol, PA 19007,
through Oct. 14.
Tickets: $30 - $45.
Oleanna Question Tree
Oleanna was Mamet's response to what big 1991 scandal?
David Mamet wrote Oleanna in response to the Anita Hill – Clarence Thomas scandal. In 1991 President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall who was retiring from the US Supreme Court. As Justice Thomas’ confirmation hearings progressed, an interview Hill gave to the FBI, about her experiences with Thomas, was leaked to the press. Based on that interview she was called for days of testimony about her allegations of sexual impropriety which included talk of pornography, bestiality, and pressure to go on dates. Thomas denied the allegations and the case became a lightning rod of he said, she said with no clear verification available. Those hearings highlighted gender inequity in the workplace and were crucial in bringing the term “sexual harassment” into everyday parlance.
What is MametSpeak?
You’ll notice it instantly in Oleanna. Mamet uses a terse, sparse, clipped and sometimes vulgar dialogue within his plays. Mamet does this not for shock value, but as his frequent collaborator Gregory Mosher says, as a form of “profane poetry,” of an underclass society. Mosher says that Mamet “worked the iambic pentameter out of the vernacular of the underclass.” Language becomes a defense mechanism against the brutal environment Mamet’s characters are surrounded by.
Why is the play called Oleanna?
David Mamet’s play gets its name from a Norwegian folk song that was popularized by Pete Seeger in the 1950s. Oleanna was a 19th century settlement in Pennsylvania’s New Norway Colony. It was founded by Ole Bull, a prominent Norwegian violinist and composer who combined his and his wife’s first names to come up with the name Ole-Anna. Ole Bull visited the United States several times and decided to buy a tract of land in Pennsylvania for this “New Norway” experiment. His aim was to create a utopia, away from the pressures of his native Norway. This was one man’s version of a perfect society. But ultimately, his new society failed because the poor quality of the land which was situated in a dense forest, made farming and even travel impossible. In the play Oleanna, two characters battle out different views on the world and the college atmosphere in which they find themselves; John arguing about what makes this a “perfect society” and Carol offended by his statements.
How did you build the set for Oleanna?
What is John really hitting at the end of the play?
The character of John is played by David Barlow. During the fight scene, David hits his chest and smacks his hands to create a knap. A knap is a sound effect to simulate hitting another person. Carol, played by Blair Baker, also creates a knap by smacking her hands together.
Was Carol trying to get her grade changed?
Blair Baker who plays Carol says: I think yes and no. The failing grade is the reason Carol goes in to the office at the top of the play, but more than that, Mamet's text strongly suggests that Carol deeply wants to understand what John's class material is really about. She is a smart girl, but has great difficulty understanding what is going on in class. I believe she has a disconnect because his views are directly opposed to how he acts. Through the course of act one, she gains a clearer understanding of what she thinks of him and what he teaches. I believe if she really just wanted to get her grade changed than the play would end at the end of act one because John does change her grade. Whether or not Carol has been sent by the group from the beginning of the play to "bring John down." I think thats for the audience to decide.
One patron asks: Is David Mamet saying, in his opinion, Anita Hill was the lying provocateur like Carol in his play? What do you think? Is Carol the provocateur or is it really John?
By MARGAUX LASKEY
Published: April 21, 2013
Blair Courtney Baker, a daughter of Wendy A. Baker and Douglas C. Baker of Altadena, Calif., is to be married Sunday to Zachary Wolf Kline, the son of Thomas R. Kline of Philadelphia and the late Paula Wolf Kline. Rabbi Melissa Buyer is to officiate in the New York apartment owned by the groom’s father.
Ms. Baker, 27, an actress in New York, will keep her name. Last October, she played Carol in “Oleanna” at Bristol Riverside Theater in Bristol, Pa., a role for which she had been an understudy in 2009 and 2010 in the Broadway production. She graduated from the two-year acting program at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.
The bride’s father is the producing director of Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. Her mother is the executive director of the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the bride’s parents worked on Broadway, Mr. Baker as the general manager of “Annie” and Mrs. Baker as a dancer and later stage manager of “A Chorus Line.”
Mr. Kline, 28, teaches playwriting and screenwriting to high school students at Urban Arts Partnership, a nonprofit educational organization in New York. He is also a playwright whose most recent work is “What Are We Going to Do About Little Brother?” scheduled for a staged reading April 29 at New Dramatists in New York as part of an evening of theater works in support of gun control. He graduated from New York University, from which he also received a Master of Fine Arts in musical theater writing. He also received a law degree from Drexel.
The groom’s father is a partner in the Philadelphia law firm Kline & Specter.
The couple met in January 2011 when Ms. Baker auditioned and was cast in “Messed Up Here Tonight,” one of Mr. Kline’s plays, which was being staged by Renovations Theater Company.
Unlike some actresses, Ms. Baker seemed approachable. This caused Mr. Kline, who is sometimes shy around women, to mention to the play’s director, “I wasn’t going to get tongue-tied around her,” Mr. Kline recalled. He added, “I think that was when lightning struck me.”
Over the monthlong rehearsal process, Ms. Baker found herself increasingly drawn to Mr. Kline, who she said, “always had the same impulses and the same thoughts in rehearsal. We’d totally geek out about the same things.”
Yet Mr. Kline was too nervous to ask Ms. Baker out. “I wanted to work with Blair more artistically, but also knew I liked her a whole lot,” Mr. Kline said.
He found another way by offering to write a one-woman show for her that came to be called “Big Star California.”
Ms. Baker agreed, and they began to collaborate.
“That’s when we really became close, professionally and unprofessionally,” Ms. Baker said.