Pillow Talking’s Review of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE at Yale Repertory Theatre
Through October 28th
The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone. – Henrk Ibsen, Enemy of the People
When I believe in something, I fight like hell for it. – Steve McQueen
A frozen tableau deep in the recesses of my mind: sitting at a scarred study carrel on the second floor of my college library, next to the wrought iron narrow – oh so narrow – spiral staircase leading to the third floor where stacks of books (remember those?) were placed in alphabetical order; the musty smell of yellowed paper strangely repelling and comforting at the same time. And there I sat, reading most of Henrik Ibsen’s plays wondering between the acts how a Norwegian playwright penning in the 1800s would have any relevance to present day. At the time I was studying Ibsen, such topical Broadway plays like A Chorus Line, Equus, Seascape, and Dracula were playing to standing-room-only crowds.
Flash forward a quarter of a century to today and being riveted to Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of An Enemy of The People. All I kept thinking throughout the play was how relevant it was to the here and now. I felt like I was watching the iconic advertisement of the long-running television series, Law and Order, and how the content was “ripped from the headlines.” I’ve come a long way from that scarred study carrel a quarter of a century ago – or maybe I finally realized that Ibsen’s works were already relevant and I just didn’t realize it at the time.
An Enemy of the People follows the rise and fall of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, an honest idealist who discovers that the town’s baths are polluted by microorganisms from the dumping of industrial plant waste owned by the privileged class (which includes his father-in-law). The baths are heralded as the town’s principal asset for their purported “health” benefits. At first, the townspeople are fully behind and supportive of Dr. Stockmann’s efforts to expose the health hazards and bring down the upper class. But as we know, fame only lasts fifteen minutes, and the town plebeians are quick to desert Dr. Stockmann and his cause (even at the risk of suffering harm from the polluted baths) when they learn that the cost of fixing the problem will ultimately fall on their heads rather than those in power. Does Stockmann cave in to the financial and social pressure to withdraw his claims (and accept a bribe from his father-in-law) or should he stand alone against the entire town, broke, shunned, and destitute?
Of course, the motif of the solitary idealist hell-bent on slaying windmills was not invented by Ibsen. Being a film buff, I was immediately reminded of the classic western High Noon, the more modern Erin Brockovich, and the blockbuster Jaws (the latter I discovered had been indirectly inspired by Ibsen’s Enemy). And it finally dawned on me why superstar Steve McQueen risked his career and image as an action hero by insisting on doing a cinematic version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People when everyone around him advised against it. The reason is that protagonists like Dr. Stockmann are, for the most part, everyday, average Joes like all of us, trying to raise families, inculcate ethical and moral values to our children, and, above all, as Spike Lee said in his film, “Do the right thing.” But the Ibsen-conundrum that has been dealt with in countless other plays and films, is how can one stand up against all odds and remain moral and ethical in a world filled with immorality and mendacity? And therein lies the conflict, challenge, and action of the pivotal role.
Veteran stage and screen actor, Reg Rogers, is perfectly cast as Dr. Stockmann. His commanding stage presence was tempered with just the right level of innocent naivete. Like the iconic Mr. Spock, he cannot understand why everyone around him cannot just do the logical and right thing. If I were to speculate on his political bent, I would say slightly left of Don Quixote himself, but thankfully just sort of over-the-top guilessness. No stranger to stage or screen himself, Enrico Colantoni as Stockmann’s brother, Peter, (who also happens to be the Mayor of the town) is the perfect foil for the Doctor. Mr. Colantoni’s portrayal has just the right brew of jaded cynicism and effrontery. Rather than being his alter-ego, Colantoni’s Peter Stockmann is more of the polar opposite of his brother: to wit, a poser, pretender to class, with the mindset of a Judas Cow. Nevertheless, Mr. Colantoni imbues the character with an underlying vulnerability who (much like Murray Hamilton’s portrayal of the Mayor in Jaws) is a victim of his own circumstances.
The rest of the cast is spot-on as well. Stretching the Don Quixote analogy, if there is a Sancho Panza to Dr. Stockmann, he is in the guise of his daughter, Petra Stockmann, played smartly and capably by Stephanie Machado. Ms. Machado infuses her character with fierce loyalty mixed with an underlying layer of sarcastic wit and humor. Veteran Broadway actor and Yale Rep staple, Jarlath Conroy gives a devilishly satisfying performance as the back-stabbing, cunning Morten Kill, Dr. Stockmann’s rich, industrialist father-in-law. Setareki Wainiqolo steals some scenes as the authoritative Captain Horster who offers the only voice of reason (other than Dr. Stockmann) in the play in addition to his offer of a safe harbor. Behind every great man is a greater woman, and Ibsen has followed that axiom with the character of Mrs. Catherine Stockmann, the doctor’s wife; a richly layered character, especially for a female role in the 1800s, and is well-played by the talented actress Joey Parsons. Kudos also must go to Ben Anderson (Billing), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Alasken), Bobby Roman (Hovstad), and Atticus Burrello (Eilif Stockmann), for their solid supporting performances.
Any piece of foreign literature is only as good as its translator and this translation by Paul Walsh is touted to be one of the best. Add to that the expert direction of James Bundy, and you have a formidable piece of theatre. Indeed, Mr. Bundy did an exceptional job of not only highlighting all of the permutations that can arise from the play’s moral dilemma, but also emphasizes much of the humor and wry wit of the play itself – something which was lost on me when I was reading it in my scarred carrel all those years ago. (Which is the reason why plays should be seen and heard rather than read!)
Not only did I thoroughly enjoy An Enemy of the People, but it has inspired me to finally to pursue an item that has been on my bucket list for decades – watching Steve McQueen as the idealist Dr. Stockmann in the rare, cinematic version of Ibsen’s play. (I am certain I’ll end up reviewing it – stay tuned!)
“…the strong must learn to be lonely.” – Dr. Thomas Stockmann, closing line of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People
Merriam-Webster defines the word sheep as: any of various hollow-horned typically gregarious ruminant mammals… (genus Ovis, species Aries); and as a timid defenseless creature. Why, might you ask, do I open my review with a description of this common, domestic livestock?
That is because the term “sheep” doesn’t always refer to the sweet, wooly kind, but also to those of the Homo Sapien variety – those which Merriam-Webster defines as people who are easily influenced or led. These are people whom are well known to engage in “herd” or “mob mentality” whereby they defer to group opinion (often away from truth or personal convictions) and are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors or mindsets, in spite of what may be obvious evidence to the contrary. But why do people do this and how can it happen?
Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People presented at Yale Repertory Theatre is one such a glaring example. Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh and expertly directed by James Bundy, it doesn’t take a degree in psychology or the completion of a social psychology course for one to understand why people may transform into “sheeple.” Peer pressure is a widely understood principle – and it’s a rare individual who rises above the need for group unity or the ingroup/outgroup mentality (think Rosa Parks and the bus) and who instead, dives headlong into honor and integrity. Protagonist Doctor Thomas Stockmann (with a brilliant, often rib-tickling performance Reg Rogers, well-loved by me in his role as a former fiancé in the Julia Roberts hit Runaway Bride), however, does rise above, and it’s deeply rooted in his strict moral principles of truth, justice, and concern for the greater good.
Thomas lives in a small town in the south of Norway where there are medicinal baths which promise health and vitality to all who visit. Concerned that many people have been getting sick, Thomas orders testing of the water and learns that the Springs do in fact contain harmful bacteria, and he taken it as him mission to rectify it. The town’s Mayor and Chairman of the Board for the Springs, Thomas’s brother Peter (a devilishly unscrupulous Enrico Colantoni whom I loved in the 1990’s/2000’s sitcom Just Shoot Me!), is a big proponent of the Springs which have bolstered the town’s image and buoyed its economy. Nevertheless, Thomas is certain his brother will want to know of the toxicity and of course, take action himself.
Thomas’s family – his supportive wife (who knows how to keep her freethinking husband in check), Catherine (a terrific Joey Parsons); his outspoken, vociferous, idealist daughter, Petra (Stephanie Machado delivers a wonderful performance); and his young sons, Elif and Morten (the talented Atticus Burrello and James Jisoo Maroney, respectively), celebrate him. Thomas is confident that when he discloses the important information to his brother, the town will elect to renovate the Springs. He’s also rallied the support of radical news reporter/editor Hovstad (Bobby Roman is excellent) who plans to pen an article in his paper; and journalist Billing (a terrific Ben Anderson).
But all doesn’t go as planned; henceforth the conflict arises – and it is obvious that the two prideful brothers have an underlying sibling rivalry well beyond the current issues at hand. A wolf in the proverbial sheep’s clothing – Peter and his power rule. Enter Morten Kiil, Thomas’s father-in-law (a delightfully crotchety Jarlath Conroy) who thinks it all is a joke between the brothers – and why shouldn’t he laugh it off when his tannery is the worst polluter to the Springs? The newspaper’s printer and Chairman of the Property Owners’ Association (the working class), Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) along with Hovstad and Billing and the townspeople all flip-flop in their loyalties, eventually succumbing to the Mayor’s absolute rule, utter fabrications, and persuasive arguments as he wants nothing to do with the potentially costly renovations to the Springs. Peter would rather risk public health than jeopardize the town’s financial stability. Family loyalty be damned, he goes on to paint his brother as “The Enemy of the People” and the ignorant masses of the town become sheeple, following the voice of authority rather than truth. Few can see past the noxious greed, hunger for power, and corrupt manipulation, with the exception of the loyal Captain Horster (a dynamic Setareki Wainiqolo) who continues to support the Stockmann family and the good doctor’s efforts.
The townsheeple are comprised of a talented ensemble: Greg Webster, Arbender Robinson, Mike Boland, Mark Sage Hamilton, Bill Kux, and Mariah Sage.
The unique presentation by Yale Rep brings the characters right down to the “people” – as the actors infiltrate and ingratiate themselves to the audience prior to the production. You’re also given bird’s eye view into the open wings as the characters enter and exit from the un-curtained offstage areas – an interesting device no doubt. Set, costumes, lighting and all the rest of the parts of the unified whole bring what may often be seen as a heavy political and social commentary to the New Haven masses with effortlessness and flourish. Kudos must go to the many hands involved in Enemy – Matthew Suttor, Composer; David Dorfman, Choreographer; Emona Stoykova, Scenic Designer; Sophia Choi, Costume Designer; Krista Smith, Lighting Designer; Tye Hunt Fitzgerald, Sound Designer; Chad Kinsman, Production Dramaturg; Becca Terpenning, Technical Director; Grace Zandarski, Vocal Coach; Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; and James Mountcastle, Stage Manager.
In our current era of twisted, fake news, power struggles, and questionable ethics, An Enemy of the People is a relevant, riveting piece of drama. Thank you to Yale Repertory for bringing this truly memorable incarnation to the boards and for doing authentic theatrical work that elevates consciousness, poses important questions, serves to challenge our thought processes, and most importantly, entertains us.
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