Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Robert Falls' Pull-No-Punches Adaptation Makes for a Grippingly Modern 'Enemy of the People' at Goodman -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

An Enemy of the People
by Henrik Ibsen
adapted & directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 15

"Stupid people put stupid people in charge and the rest of us suffer for it."

So says Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Philip Earl Johnson) in Robert Falls' potent new production of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 morality tale, An Enemy of the People, at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

With the script also referencing "power-hungry dimwits," "fact facts" and "deplorables," at first blush it may seem that Ibsen was even more acutely prescient than timeless drama can often be.

And indeed, during a scene change between the post-intermission Acts IV and V, I said to my mom next to me, it feels like this could have been written yesterday, not 130+ years ago.

But looking a bit more closely at the program's title page, Falls is credited with adapting & directing Ibsen's Norwegian play, based on a translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling (who died in 1898).

I have never read any version of An Enemy of the People, and there are various English adaptations to be found online--including one by the great Arthur Miller, upon whose own plays one can readily sense Ibsen's influence, even though this is the first work I've seen by the legendary Norwegian playwright (save for a re-write of A Doll's House by Rebecca Gilman that Falls directed at Goodman in 2005).

So while I believe Falls stayed largely true to Ibsen's original narrative and themes (at least per the Wikipedia synopsis), I don't think the ferociously contemporary bent of this iteration is as coincidental as it may initially seem.

Falls, Goodman's longtime Artistic Director and--per his now stagnant but previously quite active Twitter feed--seemingly an avid anti-Trump liberal, clearly knew what he was doing in scheduling this play, and he presumably punched up some the wording to ensure the relevancy wasn't missed.

But whatever the specific development and scripting of what is currently being presented in Goodman's Albert Theater, the end result is pretty astonishing.

And, hoping Falls didn't manipulate Ibsen's original tale too much for his own purposes, it is rather amazing to note how remarkably resonant plays about corrupting self-interest can date back to the Victorian age, far earlier as with Shakespeare's King Lear, the mid-20th century as with Miller's post WWII All My Sons and--per Tracy Letts' The Minutes--just last fall.

Interestingly, Falls--who likes using theatrical classics to remind us of our shared humanity and plight--staged & directed King Lear during the George W. Bush era, and I've now seen the other 3 works over just the past 5 months.

And perhaps because it smacks the golf ball so solidly--though a tad more subtlety may be welcome--I think I liked this rendition of An Enemy of the People more than any of them.

Although I can't directly compare it to earlier iterations, it's not like Falls has changed the basic constructs of Ibsen's play.

In an unnamed but presumably Scandinavian hamlet, Dr. Stockmann is the medical director for a public baths spa that is the town's main tourist draw and economic catalyst supporting many small business owners.

Shortly after the play begins, Stockmann--whose overbearing brother, Peter (Scott Jaeck) is the mayor of the village--has his suspicions confirmed: the water of the baths is toxic, poisoned by upstream pollutants (from commercial enterprises, the specificity of which I'll leave vague).

Not only does the doctor feel it his duty to alert the town of his findings and prompt corrective actions, he vaingloriously believes he will be heralded as a savior and perhaps even thrown a parade.

Stockmann's seemingly righteous intentions are initially supported not just by his wife Katherine (Lanise Antoine Shelley)--the daughter of a local businessman, Morton Kiil (David Darlow)--and his own daughter from a previous marriage, Petra (Rebecca Hurd), but also by Hovstad (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez), editor of the town's apparently progressive newspaper, and more begrudgingly by Aslaksen (Allen Gilmore), the newspaper's printer and head of the small business association.

But the good--if a bit delusional--doctor's fantasies of not only validation but veneration are soon crushed by the jackboots of self-interest, spearheaded by his heel of a brother.

How things unfold in something of a showdown between Dr. Stockmann, Mayor Stockmann and the townsfolk is rather gripping--enhanced by Falls' adapted dialogue practically ripped from recent headlines--so no need to give away any more specifics.

Admittedly, I am rather liberal, even progressive approaching radical, in my politics, and while I can't help but wonder how Trump supporters among Goodman patrons--even in decidedly Democratic Chicago--may take to Falls dramatically insulting them, I imagine I might have even more arduous debate with Hillary fans or those satisfied with what President Obama accomplished or even tried to.

"Change every aspect of our government! The system is rigged against you!" Dr. Stockmann exhorts to the townspeople, who clearly--and understandably, to an extent--fear what revelations of the poisoned baths will do to their own financial interests.

Pretty powerful stuff.

And while I feel Falls may be overdoing it a bit--though I'm generally aligned, I'm often somewhat squeamish with the one-sidedness and sly manipulation of Michael Moore's documentaries--it makes for riveting theater even without overt polemics...

...or occasionally--as happens onstage at one point--being beaten over the head.  

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