The Riant Theatre's An Enemy of the People was no friend of the audience. At every turn, the production declared war on common sense, and at every turn common sense was defeated. From the inept set to the nonsensical costumes to the woefully miscast actors, not even an army of thousands could have won the battle over this Enemy.
When Doctor Stockmann discovers the waters that flow into his town's medicinal baths are being polluted, he alerts the citizens to the danger. Initially hailed as a hero, Stockmann is soon damned by the very people he is attempting to save. The play, as written, succeeds on a myriad of levels: as drama, metaphor, and warning. As performed here, however, it failed at each.
Why, in a late-1800s Norwegian setting, were two waist-high loudspeakers located on the floor of the doctor's house? Why were the characters dressed in modern American clothes, while the mayor of the town sported a hat that looked as if he had lifted it from the French Foreign Legion? Why did the raised part of the stage appear in real danger of falling down every time someone entered the house? Bad choices about the staging (no set designer was credited) multiplied as the play dragged on, soon to the point of absurdity.
Even if it were somehow possible to ignore the set and costumes, the acting raised even more baffling questions: how was it possible that Mrs. Stockmann tawked as if she had just driven in from Lawngg Island, while her father (who seemed to be about the same age as she) had a strong British accent, and her daughter spoke with a thick German one? Why were the actors often silently mouthing the lines of others? And during the most important scene of the play, why was one of the townsmen standing in front of Dr. Stockmann, blocking the audience's view?
As Dr. Stockmann, Stephen Hall was agreeable, yet his workmanlike efforts couldn't do much to save the sinking show. Patrick Fitzpatrick as Peter Stockmann and Ben Esner as Hovstad tried to come to his aid, but to no avail. Entrances and exits were delayed or contrived; such actions threw the timing off and led to long periods of dead silence on stage ? the kiss of death to such a production. In one scene, when Mrs. Stockmann was to simply answer the door and receive a letter, she stayed behind the curtain for what seemed half a minute, leaving the audience nothing to do.
The greatest enemy of this uncomfortable show was director Michael Lehr. Again perplexing queries arose: who approved the cheesy, mismatched furniture in what the script describes as a well-to-do household? Why were the clumsy scene changes allowed to dawdle on so horrendously long? Why didn't the actors' expressions match their words? Had it been caused by bold chance-taking or daring revisionism, the downfall of the production could have at least been deemed quixotic. But Lehr offered no such interpretation of the story, and this immense work was belittled as the result of obscenely poor oversight.
"I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama," Ibsen wrote upon submitting An Enemy of the People to his publisher. At the Riant Theatre there was no such uncertainty. It was a disaster as both.
(Also with Patrick Connors, Martin Hyde, Nancy Reina, Lisbeth Hoyt, Nicolas Saint-Lary, Kirsten Wendeborn, Richard Vaughn, Jon Battaglia, Jimmy Gencarelli, Yury DeLatorre, Richard Stroili, Rawle Williams)
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Copyright 2000 Ken Jaworowski