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Theatre in Review: Public Enemy (The Pearl Theatre Company)

Guisseppe Jones, Jimonn Cole. Photo Russ Rowland.

"Does anyone here have one good word to say about politicians?" So says Jimonn Cole, mic in hand, speaking directly to the audience at the Pearl. He is ostensibly playing Thomas Stockmann, the eye of the hurricane in the Henrik Ibsen play commonly known as An Enemy of the People and here renamed Public Enemy in a new version by David Harrower. The scene is a town hall meeting, and Thomas, having rung the alarm about corruption in his community, only to be roundly vilified by his fellow citizens, has decided that he will tell it like it is and the devil take the hindmost.

As you probably remember, Thomas is a prominent and well-connected physician; his brother is the mayor and his father-in-law is a wealthy businessman. The town they live in has struggled fiscally for years, until Thomas proposed opening a spa to attract tourism dollars. The plan has been a spectacular success, bringing new prosperity to one and all; however, Thomas learns that, thanks to runoff from the local tanneries -- one of which is owned by his father-in-law -- the spa's water supply is toxic; those who visit it for health reasons are putting themselves in harm's way.

Thomas, innocent fool that he is, spreads the word, expecting to be treated as a hero. Instead, his scientifically proven findings are dismissed as mere speculation, he is subjected to threats, and his reputation is smeared. When the local newspaper refuses to publish his warnings, and his attempt at presenting them in a live forum is suppressed, he unleashes a denunciation of Biblical proportions, going after his enemies, his community, even democracy itself. He prowls the auditorium, carrying a handheld mic, saying, "You, the majority. You are the enemies of truth," and asking, "Should the stupid be allowed to rule over the clever for all time? Who here believes the majority is always right?" He adds, "The world is full of wonderful things -- art, culture, science -- but they need effort to understand," and insists that most people are only interested in "the international tittle-tattle of gossip columns which masquerades as meaningful life." Suddenly we are no longer in the nineteenth century but in the present, an era dominated by scandal, rumor, infighting, and the most dispiriting presidential campaign in history.

Especially as delivered by Cole, who prosecutes his case with a barely controlled fury, this sequence proves uncommonly gripping; up until this point, however, Public Enemy has a difficult time straddling two centuries. The production's look and many textual references place it in the present day, but the rest of the time we are in the world of clockwork melodrama, full of revelations, reversals, and abrupt changes of heart. Harrower's version, which, eliminates some minor characters, streamlines the text to a 90-minute running time, moving so fast that the characters are all but reduced to puppets, striking new attitudes every few minutes. When Manhattan Theatre Club presented a two-hour version a few years ago, there were complaints that the play's momentum suffered from such a headlong pace; this one skips along so determinedly that one can barely keep track of all the comings and goings.

In addition, dressing An Enemy of the People in modern clothing only makes it look more artificial than it already seems. No matter how up-to-date their surroundings, the characters still carry on as if it is 1882, and the ongoing disconnect is continuously bemusing. Kiil, Thomas' father-in-law, speaks wonderingly of "lots of tiny animals, crawling around in the water." "Bacteria," adds Thomas, helpfully. Peter, the mayor, who is Thomas' brother, announces that he is president of the local temperance society -- when was the last time you heard about one of those? There is much to-do about Petra, Thomas' daughter, who has a job (and a mind) of her own, qualities that are supposed to make her something of a rebel in her world. Despite the presence of a laptop on the desk of Hovstad, the newspaper editor, the local rag is strictly a paper-only proposition; indeed, the town's printer is a major player in the story, not least when he refuses to publish a pamphlet written by Thomas. Horster, a sea captain, is played by Carol Schultz, a strange choice since even today one suspects this is a profession where women are hugely underrepresented. When Thomas plans to flee to America with his family, Horster arrives to tell them that the plan is off because she has been fired from the shipping line. My first thought was, Why doesn't Thomas book a flight on SAS?

What with the brief running time and contemporary bric-a-brac, little attention is paid to creating any kind of psychological reality. When, in Doug Hughes' 2012 Broadway staging, Thomas (Boyd Gaines) and Peter (Richard Thomas) fell out over the issue of the poisoned water, we saw two men, united by love and torn by long-held grievances, watching themselves in horror as their conflict passed the point of no return. Hal Brooks' production for the Pearl has nothing comparable: everybody hits their marks and says their lines, sometimes effectively, but there is surprisingly little subtext.

Cole is a rather low-energy Stockmann in the early scenes, but as his contempt for his friends and neighbors grows, so does the power of his performance; by the end he has achieved real stature. As Peter, Guiesseppe Jones is a solid portrait of a professional hypocrite -- a prig at home and a super-smooth politician in public. Robbie Tann works hard to bring to life the multiple hypocrisies of Hovstad, the editor, who first uses Thomas' findings to shake up the political establishment and then recants in record time when his own livelihood is threatened. John Keating is properly oily as Aslasken, the printer, his eye firmly affixed to the main chance. Dominic Cuskern has some incisive moments as Kiil, who devises a blackmail plot designed to exquisitely torture Thomas. As Thomas' ever-watchful wife, Nilaja Sun has distressingly little to do.

If the idea of updating the play is questionable, there's a lot to like in Harry Feiner's sleek blonde-wood-and-glass set, placed against a black-and-white drop of a birch forest; the set allows for rapid scenic transitions as the action moves from the Stockmanns' living room to Hovstad's office to a meeting hall. Similarly, if you are going to dress them in modern clothes, at least Barbara A. Bell's costumes are attractive and flattering. Marika Kent's lighting design, which includes some saturated color treatments on that forest drop, is solid, as is Jane Shaw's sound design, which includes some eerie electronic incidental music and a doorbell at the Stockmanns' house that thumps like a portent of doom.

This production is probably good enough to introduce the inexperienced to An Enemy of the People, but we have seen better treatments of this script in recent memory. In the end, it tries too hard to place the action in the modern-day world of official spin, denial, and prevarication. If you do the play straight up, Ibsen does all of that work for you. -- David Barbour

(13 October 2016)

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