Staging Ibsen presents one of the biggest conundrums for contemporary directors. Like Edgar Allen Poe, Rene Descartes, and even Bob Dylan, Ibsen suffers from the fate of many revolutionary artists and thinkers who see their breakthroughs grow stale in hindsight do the work of their followers. Ibsen’s fate in this regard is particularly pronounced; all modern dramatists can, arguably, be considered his followers. Contemporary stagings have a hard time making 19th century drawing room dramas with well-made-play tendencies seem truly modern.
In the case of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s staging of An Enemy of the People, however, any hint of modernity is shed in favor of the farcical, childish, and just plain stupid. Using a nearly half-century-old translation of Ibsen featured in one of the standard published editions, it’s hard to convey anything modern – this is still a world of pocket watches, smoking hats, “Pah’s” and “egads.” By playing closer to the 18th than the 20th century side of the play, the Phoenix Ensemble has sapped Ibsen of his strengths and cut out any chance for an interesting production. Instead, they’ve created a watered down, supposedly more digestible version of An Enemy of the People, a play that fights against the very notion of watered-down convictions.
The Phoenix Ensemble has a focus on elementary school education, and I suspect that the group chose to focus on the more childish sides of the play in order to attract more kids. At the production I attended, however, the youngest audience members were at least well into high school. Even if the farcical side of the play may attract kids, this production's intentional, gaping sense of the pre-modern 19th century world will turn away as many children as it will draw in. Perhaps more damaging, however, would be how this play could actively turn away those just beyond elementary and facing a critical period in a theatergoer’s life. If a young teen, newly acquainted with skepticism, were to see this production after hearing of the play's purported importance, I fear he’d never become a regular theatergoer.
The irony of such a safe, facile production is that Ibsen’s text demands of its audience the exact opposite of a feeling of safety and ease. An Enemy of the People is about a righteous man who doggedly refuses to back down from his ethical righteousness in spite of every conceivable obstacle thrown his way. Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the character at the center of the play, is a man of science whose sense of right and wrong clashes with the political demands of his community. He fights to shut down the highly profitable but highly unsanitary town baths not because of any political bias, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
It’s that same unflinching sense of duty that induced Arthur Miller to adapt the work in the wake of McCarthyism. Ibsen had tapped into the spirit of "truthiness" over a hundred years before Colbert. The political parallels to the current era, be it stem cells, off-shore drilling, or what have you, are obvious, perhaps too much so. These parallels make the play vulnerable to staging by intellectually careless companies; it seems that the Phoenix Ensemble has followed through on that vulnerability.
At the center of Ibsen’s modern cynicism in An Enemy of the People is Dr. Stockmann’s attack on the stupidity of the solid majority of his town in Act IV, but in this production the speech has a very different impact than Ibsen intended. Anti-populism, expressed by a man beaten down by political reality, was not a new theme—Plato made the same point with his philosopher-kings—but it flew in the face of every common sentiment of Ibsen's time. No one, in the 1870s or today, has known how to deal with the conundrums Ibsen raised. Unfortunately, when you apply this argument to a New York setting, the connotation is of comfortable New York art patrons who look dismissively at people living anywhere else in the country (in Jesusland, as a popular internet map refers to every non-dark blue American state).
This bastardized elitism is not the only element of this Enemy of the State that violates Ibsen’s spirit. Rather than show any realism or nuance in the plays’ characters, the Phoenix Ensemble’s production features almost nothing but caricatures. Particularly vulnerable is Jospeh Menino’s Mayor Stockmann, who lies somewhere between the Grinch and Mr. Burns. He makes Lionel Barrymore’s realism as Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life seem like Marlon Brando’s. The other perpetrator is Michael Surabian’s Aslaksen, who might have driven me to violence if he had said the word “moderation” in that same intentionally pronounced manner one more time. If there’s any hope to be found, it’s in Kelli Holsopple as Dr. Stockmann’s fiery independent daughter Petra. Ms. Holsopple is the only actor who seems to understand that realism is the entire reason why Ibsen gets staged anymore.
With an already turgid translation that should have never been used for any staging after 1980, director Amy Wagner has her cast rush through the text without letting anything sink in (at two hours and 40 minutes, I’m sure the rushed delivery was intended to shorten the play to under three hours). Rushed, nearly inaudible delivery is bad enough with a contemporary play; it’s even worse when “egad” and “Pah” are not even close to the most antiquated terms used.
So while there are certainly political parallels to the present in The Enemy of the People, the most pressing parallels of the Phoenix Ensemble’s revival are to the contemporary state of theater itself. In an era when few companies will dare risk offending an audience and losing ticket and subscription sales, we’re seeing a lot more productions like this Enemy of the People. It's all too common that revivals of aggressive plays go against the originals' aggressive stance with populist, bumbling productions. To make Ibsen really relate to a modern audience, we need some brave soul to go crazy with the text, someone who is not afraid to distort Ibsen into something much newer. We also need a director who is willing to make sure there is not a pocket watch to be found. It seems no one else wants to take the risk of offending one’s contemporaries, so let me offer my uncensored, journalistically dangerous suggestion to the Phoenix Ensemble that, like Dr. Stockmann, spares no exclamation points: GROW SOME FUCKING BALLS!!!!!
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Amy Wagner; translated by Rolf Fjelde; set and lighting design by Maruti Evans; costume design by Suzanne Chesney; sound design by Elizabeth Rhodes (music composed by David Nelson). Photos by Gerry Goodstein.
Starring Laura Piquado (Mrs. Stockmann), Josh Tyson (Billing), Joseph J. Menino (Mayor Stockmann), Tom Escovar (Hovstad), John Lenartz (Dr. Stockmann), Brian A. Costello (Captain Horster), Kelli Holsopple (Petra Stockmann), Jack Tartaglia (Morten Stockmann), Dmitri Friedenberg (Eilif Stockmann), Angus Hepburn (Morten Kiil), and Michael Surabian (Aslaksen).
An Enemy of the People runs through September 20th at the Connelly Theater. It is performed by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.Powered by Sidelines