Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in Oleanna
(© Craig Schwartz)
Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in Oleanna
(© Craig Schwartz)
Watching a David Mamet play isn't a passive experience. Virtually every word of dialogue pushes, provokes, entices, frustrates, and stimulates his audience. And his two-character 1992 play, Oleanna, now being revived at the Mark Taper Forum with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles under the direction of Doug Hughes, is the epitome of the writer's art. The explosive drama focuses on the confrontation between John, a middle-aged college professor, and Carol, a student who accuses him of sexual harassment. The story is framed by a series of events that could be interpreted as innocent -- or not -- depending on each audience member's personal perspective.

Because Oleanna debuted about a year after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, the play became a political lightning rod. But in this production, the actors are trying to make the conflict more personal. "We're so far away from a time of political correctness that I think it's a great time to look at the play again," says Pullman. "I'm hoping for a larger perspective -- to look at the tragic side of it all, rather than just the melodramatic side of who is right/wrong or good/bad?"

Adds Stiles, who previously played the role of Carol at London's Royal Court Theatre: "I'm not up there representing all women and Bill isn't representing all men. We wanted to have the audience witness two people in a room fighting to be heard." She also notes her own take on the character has changed since she last played the role. "My perspective on the play is different," she notes. "Back then I put the emphasis on Carol wanting to get a good grade, and now I see that it's about approval and acceptance in the world and not literally her experience in college."

Both actors are also reveling in the joy of being entangled in Mamet's writing. "He's really in touch with the water spider nature of conversation -- that at any moment a forward thought can shift," says Pullman. "On one level, things seem disjointed; but when you get inside it you see this larger subterranean flow that really is alive. It's quite amazing." Adds Stiles: "I also love that he's not so interested in where your sympathies are as who is more interesting to watch."

Still, in almost every performance, the audience vocally turns on Stiles' character with audible gasps and 'oh-my-Gods," a moment the actress finds difficult to deal with. "No matter how much I was anticipating that moment, I was still surprised," she notes. "When you hear the audience's disapproval, it's hard not to take it personally -- especially when I'm absorbed in the argument Carol is making." Yet, ultimately, it was the character's boldness that made her return to the role for a second go-round. "There is something so satisfying and freeing that she is not concerned about being liked," says Stiles.

Adding to the drama is the fact that the audience is only about 50 feet from the stage, and the 'in-the-round' seating adds to the feeling that you're in the classroom as the drama unfolds. "Half the audience can see you, and half the audience might not," Pullman notes. "So, it's great for the change of allegiances and different points of view."