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Public Enemy

Taut, streamlined David Harrower version of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” has been brilliantly updated to the present in Pearl Theatre’s U.S. premiere.

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Jimonn Cole, Nilaja Sun, Alex Haynes, Carol Schultz, Arielle Goldman and David Vino in a scene from The Pearl Theater  Company’s “Public Enemy” (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Jimonn Cole, Nilaja Sun, Alex Haynes, Carol Schultz, Arielle Goldman and David Vino in a scene from The Pearl Theatre  Company’s “Public Enemy” (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

David Harrower’s new streamlined version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People  retitled Public Enemy is rousingly taut and tense. Performed in modern dress by The Pearl Theatre Company in the play’s U.S. premiere, the Ibsen original has been updated in language so that it has a believably modern feel. While Ibsen’s 1882 drama dealt with ecology and economics, Harrower’s version is much more pointedly political. Hal Brooks’ exciting intermission-less production keeps the tension rising throughout the play and makes this a timely drama in the current election season.

While British playwright Harrower is known exclusively in America for his sexual abuse thriller Blackbird which had a second New York production last season, he is also known in England for adaptations of plays by Gogol, Schnitzler, Brecht, Wedekind, and Pirandello. His version of the Ibsen is extremely faithful to the original story while making the play even more a condemnation of a democracy that only worries about the cost of things to the detriment of public good. Although the location is never stated, the character names imply that the setting is still a provincial town in Southern Norway.

Before the play begins, Dr. Thomas Stockmann has discovered the medicinal value of the town’s waters and a corporation was formed to open a spa. In this second summer of the Baths, the town is becoming prosperous after many years of economic depression. However, the doctor (now the medical officer of the Baths) has been worried about suspicious illnesses of visitors that occurred the previous summer season. Having sent his samples to a college laboratory, he now has proof that the way the plumbing was laid out for the Baths, its water is being contaminated by the chemicals being poured into the river by the local tannery, ironically owned by his father-in-law.

When his brother Peter, the mayor and chairman of the Baths governing committee, confronts Thomas about the rumors that are swirling around the town, he forbids Thomas to make any public announcement as that will cause the economic ruin of the town. The mayor demands that Thomas take back his article from the progressive newspaper The Reformer. However, the editor Hovstad is gloating that he can use the doctor’s article about the pollution as a way of getting back at the swamp of local politics. Unfortunately, he hasn’t considered the economic effect of shutting down the Baths for up to two years in order to relay the plumbing nor the cost that will be placed on the citizens.

Guiesseppe Jones and Jimonn Cole in a scene from The Pearl Theater  Company’s “Public Enemy” (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Guiesseppe Jones and Jimonn Cole in a scene from The Pearl Theatre Company’s “Public Enemy” (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

When first their printer Aslaksen, chair of the Small Business Federation, and then Hovstad refuse to publish his article about the pollution, Stockmann arranges a public meeting in order to take his findings to the people, expecting to be hailed as a public savior. However, Stockmann has forgotten that in a democracy the majority rules even when not in possession of all the facts and he runs up against the economic fears of the community. The play which up to now has had a comic tone turns dark as Stockmann goes from being a public savior to a public enemy and he pays the penalty for going against the majority as well as the powers that be. As both Hovstad and Aslaksen point out, “Public opinion controls newspapers,” and neither of them could afford to antagonize their readers even with the truth. However, reckless of his own future, Stockmann condemns the town declaring that “a community that lives on lies deserves to be destroyed,” sealing his own fate. Retribution comes swiftly and quickly leading up to the play’s ironic conclusion.

One of the brilliant touches in Brooks’ production is that it uses the actual audience as the members of Dr. Stockmann’s town meeting. This gives the play an immediacy and a power that it doesn’t always have. Harry Feiner’s unit setting in blonde wood works cleverly for all three locations: the Stockmann home, the newspaper office, and the meeting hall for the doctor’s speech. The bland contemporary clothing by Barbara A. Bell helps considerably to bring the play into our own time. Jane Shaw’s sound design, particularly the Stockmann’s doorbell which sounds like the voice of doom, is particularly effective. Marika Kent is responsible for the play’s subtle lighting.

Brooks’ direction has created a tight ensemble although the non-traditional casting at times seems to be more a political statement than in keeping with the realistic nature of the material. As Dr. Thomas Stockmann, Jimonn Cole is an impassioned seeker for truth. His elder brother Mayor Peter played by Guiesseppe Jones is a political animal who knows the danger of new ideas. In Robbie Tann’s hand, Hovstad becomes an extremely hypocritical “progressive” who changes his mind depending on which way the wind blows.

Nilaja Sun makes the doctor’s wife the voice of cool reason as well as giving loyal support to her husband. John Keating’s Aslaksen who is always calling for acting “sensibly – nothing too extreme” is an excellent portrait of the dyed-in-the-wool conservative for whom the bottom line is his wallet. Dominic Cuskern as the doctor’s father-in-law is amusing as an uneducated man who refuses to credit the doctor’s true motives. Alex Purcell as sub-editor Billing, Arielle Goldman as the Stockmann’s school teacher daughter Petra and Carol Schultz as Captain Horster give able support in smaller roles.

Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is a classic of modern drama but at times it can seem musty in a poor translation. David Harrower’s Public Enemy is not only a shrewd, accessible adaptation, it also makes clear the contemporary relevance of the dangers of the herd instinct in a seemingly just society. The Pearl Theatre Company production is a must-see for all good citizens, particularly in these perilous times.

Public Enemy (extended through November 6, 2016; in repertory with A Taste of Honey through October 30, 2016)

The Pearl Theatre, 555 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets call, 212-563-9261 or visit http://www.pearltheatre.org

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (637 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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