Monday, September 18, 2006

An Inconvenient Text: Shakespeare Theatre Company vs. An Enemy of the People

A dreary miasma hangs over the stage of the Lansburgh Theatre, home of Shakespeare Theatre Company's revival of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. It isn't just the omnipresent stage fog, Timin Alsaker's water pipe-infested sets, Charlie Morrison's grim, grey lighting, or the too-obvious dripping of Martin Desjardins' sound design: It's the unmistakable fog of agitprop.

To be fair, Ibsen's Enemy, first performed in 1882, practically started the tradition of agitprop theater before there was even a name for it. His previous play Ghosts had been roundly rejected by mainstream audiences for its frank depiction of syphillis, and Ibsen wrote Enemy at a white heat to attack what he saw as the stupidity of the Norwegian public (and especially its faux-liberal contingent). But Ibsen's five-act drama is hardly an environmentalist polemic. True, the main character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (the last name translates to something like "stick figure"), discovers a problem with the town's water supply, one which endangers the citizens' health and economic well-being. The citizens are naturally upset and gradually retaliate against him. Yet for Ibsen, the initial environmental dilemma is only a metaphor for a deeper, spiritual corruption. But the metaphor feels haphazard and ill-chosen, so that by Act IV, when Stockmann delivers his tirade against the real object of Ibsen's displeasure, the play goes off the rails, never to return.

Director Kjetil Bang-Hansen, abetted by translators Rick Davis and Brian Johnston, seems to have imposed a contemporary, modernistic sensibility onto a period play. Cutting Ibsen's conscience to fit the fashion, he has transformed the author's distinctly nineteenth-century indictment of petit-bourgeois mentality into a twenty-first century environmentalist manifesto. Undoubtedly many audience members will leave the theater with the belief that Ibsen actually wrote what they saw on stage, and that the prescient playwright anticipated Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth a century-and-a-quarter before the fact. Alas, nothing could be further from that inconvenient truth. Bang-Hansen has revamped several key scenes and abridged the ending so that the play's overall message is precisely the opposite of what Ibsen intended. (Ibsen himself described Enemy as a "comedy.") The director and his cast seem to think that Dr. Stockmann is a deeply nuanced, ironic character, and that Enemy is a deep, heartfelt statement on the difficult lives of "whistle-blowers." It's a lovely idea, but the play can't support it.

Other elements in this production are equally baffling. Ibsen's references to spa treatments, tanneries and the novelty of indoor plumbing make Enemy very much a play of its time. Yet the play's production design has been updated to suggest the 1930s, when none of these references would make sense. Although Enemy is very much a Norwegian play, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has inexplicably "Americanized" the sets, so that the social dynamics never seem plausible. The actors who play townspeople offer sly, witty performances befitting a social comedy, while the morose actors who portray Dr. Stockmann's immediate family seem to belong to the realm of domestic tragedy. The gears never mesh. With so many disparate elements fighting for supremacy onstage, and so many of them at odds with Ibsen's actual play, it's no wonder this Enemy falls apart at the seams.

Still, I suspect that a dynamic and charismatic lead -- one who could deliver Dr. Stockmann's strident speeches like operatic arias -- could have circumvented most of these objections. Stockmann is one of the fattest, juiciest roles in modern theater: It's practically a showcase for great acting, and an electric performance here can single-handedly redeem an otherwise pedestrian evening. Unfortunately, I don't think Joseph Urla is up to the challenge: He's more like a wet blanket than a dynamo. True, he handles dialogue well enough, and his ensemble work is superb. But his grand speeches prove more tiresome than mesmerizing. They lack the necessary hambone.

Of course, director Bang-Hansen severely handicaps Urla by opting to present Act IV environmentally, with the theater as the town meeting hall, and the audience as the people Stockmann must harangue. The problem here is that when Stockmann claims that "the people" are irredeemably stupid and always wrong (Enemy is a deeply anti-democratic play), his audience is supposed to become angry with him, and the audience in the theater doesn't necessarily oblige him on the point. Prerecorded boos and hisses drown out genuine reactions, as Bang-Hansen's provocative concept turns to rather inept sock-puppetry. (The audience with whom I saw the play was as contrarian as they come: They clearly approved of Stockmann's every word -- and applauded at his statements that people are "sheep" and "clay." If nothing else, this scene proved that in the proper context, theatergoing leftists can be every bit as susceptible to Michael Savage-style demagoguery as right-wing radio listeners. Nonetheless, it ruined the rest of the show.)

STC's Enemy must be chalked up as a failure, and not a terribly ambitious one at that. It's smug, dreary, muddled and wrong-headed. Worst of all, this Enemy is grossly unfaithful and unfair to Ibsen -- who, being dead and long out of copyright, can't really object to the proceedings. Suddenly the steps Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett have taken to protect the integrity of their work don't seem so unreasonable.

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