The Bloody Utopia of John Deserves to Die at Fresh Ink Theatre
“Mamet does not speak for me.”
Jen Barnett and Laura Vogel, John Deserves to Die, Scene 1.
To anyone wondering who Mamet is, why he does not speak for these women, and how they may speak for themselves, Fresh Ink Theatre’s 2023 world premiere has plenty of context and vindication for you. Written by Rachel Greene, John Deserves to Die is both a reclamation of David Mamet’s famous(ly antifeminist) play Oleanna, and its own unique story about consent, power imbalances, rage, and reclamation. Greene’s subject matter and theming already do plenty to bite back against the play within the play, but she deserves just as much props for the way she weaponizes prose against her targets. John Deserves to Die is loud, rich, raw, and detailed in such a way that it becomes an act of defiance against Oleanna’s stiltedness, repetition, and multitude of ellipses.
The play is a personal drama in a small black box space, with effectively minimal costuming & set design by Victoria Rojo and Kat Lawrence respectively. Such a setup could have easily become underwhelming, but thankfully director Regine Vital makes the space sing in much the same way the cast makes the script sing. Alex Jacobs, a real-life professor portraying Professor Daniel Holmes, is terrifyingly normal in such a way he will make many women realize that yes, they do know a Professor Holmes, and no, the way he treats them is not okay. Cara Clough as Jen Barnett and Tiffany Santiago as Andy Stark demand to be seen and heard the second they step onstage, and Ethan Williams’ performance as Steven Saunders drips with liberal arts filmbro energy, made tragic by the few genuine moments he has with Laura Vogel (played by Devon Whitney, who is the Mirriam-Webster definition of “sweetheart.”) The two most impressive performances are the most ephemeral: Lorraine Victoria Kanyike as Leah Harris, and the work done by intimacy & fight director Margaret Clark. Much like Jacobs, the realism and vulnerability of Kanyike’s performance will be a revelation catalyst for many attendees, and if John Deserves to Die has anything to teach us, it’s that methodical, mindful intimacy practice deserves just as much of a spotlight as any leading lady.
David Mamet has claimed that Oleanna is about “the failed utopia of academia;” an ironic claim considering theatre is, in and of itself, a utopia-making machine. Every play in the world constructs a space between the real world and Eden. We walk into a theater, and we exit with something — an idea, a feeling, a song, a joke — that we can use to build a world that’s better. Considering Fresh Ink’s mission to create space for new works and artists, it’s very fitting that a play about space be their world premiere of 2023. John Deserves to Die builds a utopia for femme and fat bodies by mere virtue of existence. It gives both its characters and its audience the keys to an empty room and full clearance to scream as loud as they want.