Monday, May 7, 2018

A Prescient Enemy of the People

It's amazing how some themes endure. 


Photo by Dan Norman

Something about the human condition seems to render us unable to answer one simple question - why don't we ever learn? A lust for power, flawed focus on short-term gains rather than long-term consequences, the allure of quick money - these themes tend to rise up over and over again under various guises.

Photo by Dan Norman

An Enemy of the People, originally penned by Henrik Ibsen but given a strikingly modern bend in a new adaptation by Brad Birch, takes a fresh approach to tackling such questions in the Guthrie's latest play. The play is concerned with a remote Norwegian town that has recently suffered an economic downturn. As the mayor, Peter Stockmann promises economic relief in the form of a shiny new resort, which explodes with success, drawing in many tourists and creating plenty of new jobs and income for citizens who desperately need it. Everything seems fine, until Tom Stockmann, the director of the resort who is also the mayor's brother, learns that the resort's water has been poisoned due to shortcuts taken during the its construction. Tom tries everything to report the issue and preserve public health, but is met at every turn with new obstacles that block his path - from Peter burying the knowledge to the resort's board commissioning false studies to discredit Tom's science to the newspaper refusing to run stories about the poisoned water.

Photo by Dan Norman

As Tom explores every possible opportunity to present the news, he conflicts with everyone - his wife Kate and daughter Petra; his wife's brother Morten; the newspaper editor Aslaksen; even his theoretical and ideological comrades, resident writer Billing and journalist Hovstad, are unable to stand with Tom by the end. Several pointed political monologues question Tom's motivation and flip the script; it's noble for him to want to save this one resort and one town, but what about his larger culpability for crimes committed by the first world country he lives in? Is he as concerned about the death by wars propagated by his tax dollars and global environmental poisonings from his consumer consumption? The resort is a pet project, but is it worth such a sacrifice from Tom? An Enemy of the People poses many interesting and important questions in our increasingly globalized world, and it's amazing how contemporary it all felt.

Photo by Dan Norman

Like many (accurate) stereotypes of Scandinavian art, An Enemy of the People is a quiet, dark piece, with the most meaningful moments created in the pregnant pauses created as the characters claw their way to some sort of truth. The cast deftly upholds this somber tone, beginning with Billy Carter as Tom Stockmann. Carter brings energy to his performance but without heat, and his tone grows appropriately colder as the plot thickens. Sarah Agnew gracefully foils Carter as Tom's wife Kate, with an elegantly cool demeanor that instantly recalled Robin Wright's delicious Clare Underwood. Christian Bardin was striking as Tom's daughter Petra, leaving a messy performance that had the most hope and life of all the characters on stage. Ricardo Chavira is sneaky as the mayor Peter Stockmann, and makes his villain more complex than at first meets the eye. Mo Perry is steadfast as Hovstad, providing a moral compass that puts her boss Aslaksen (played with gravitas by J.C. Cutler) to shame. And Zachary Fine brings a Lannister - Game of Thrones evil vibe to his role as Morten, leaving Zarif Kabier to provide the occasional positive relief as the writer Billing.

Photo by Dan Norman

The scenic design by Merle Hensel is sleek and spare, but always interesting. The stage is constructed on a roundabout; as each scene plays, an opaque black scrim drops to segment the stage, allowing the crew to put a totally new set in place that turns into view as the scene transitions and the stage rotates. It's hard to describe but a really efficient, austere but clean effect, and I found myself consistently engaged in enjoying the spare but polished aesthetic. Costumes (by Brenda Abbandandolo) are similarly sparse but plush, with obvious quality that gleamed even near the back of the house. The lighting design by Jane Cox and music and sound design by Brochen Chord seamlessly integrate with the set in motion and keep the audience fully engaged. I really enjoyed how thoughtfully this quiet vision was composed, and the efficiency with which it led the play - the whole thing is over in barely an hour and a half, and it keeps the long pauses and silent monologues from feeling too dreary.

Photo by Dan Norman

I really was surprised by how modern An Enemy of the People felt, and how resonant some of the pointed monologues were. Regardless of your political views, I think right now that most of us are really examining the role of the government and the people, the interplay between responsibility and contemporary practical realities, and the limits of power and conscience. What is the appropriate cost for doing the right thing? Should you lose your family, your career, your life? Are people better off left in blissful ignorance or awakened to painful truths? Who gets to decide what you deserve to know? Is there anything we can do to rein in the outsized influence multinational corporations have over our everyday decisions and needs?

Photo by Dan Norman

All of these questions, and more, are raised in An Enemy of the People, and you will leave without any easy answers. This old script still has as lot to tell us, and this beautifully adapted version will have something to say to audiences of any stripe. I know that I'll be chewing on some of these ideas for some time; if you want to engage with art containing a little more gravitas than we've seen of late, this is a good choice for you. An Enemy of the People runs at the Guthrie Theater through June 3; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.