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A CurtainUp Review
Public Enemy

The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.
— Dr Stockmann who indeed must stand alone against a hostile town,
though he's fortunate to have the support of his family.

Public Enemy
L-R: Guisseppe Jones and Jimonn Cole (photo: Russ Rowland)
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) has remained one of the modern drama's most socially relevant playwrights. In fact, the themes he's dramatized have become more relevant with time. Yet his plays do tend to be too dark and heavy to sit through when presented in their full-featured, full length versions. This is especially true of An Enemy of the People with its polemical fireworks about a small Norwegian spa town's polluted water that a naive whistle blower and title character sets off.

No wonder that there have been so many adaptations designed to take advantage of the play's ever escalating connection to current political and environmental issues, and there has been no shortage of well-known actors eager to tackle the fiery Dr. Stockmann. A 2003 Williamstown Theatre Festival production featured a text by the excellent British playwright/adaptor Christopher Hampton, but even with Mandy Patinkin making the most of all the sturm and drang, I found the almost 3-hour length too much of the good Doctor's passionate speechifying. When Manhattan Theatre Club decided to mount a Broadway revival they wisely used a smartly slimmed down version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and had the resources to do it with a big, starry cast that included Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas as Stockmann and his brother.

With an endlessly long, and unpleasant presidential campaign in its final weeks, the invaluable Pearl Theater's Public Enemy is certainly super timely. And their choice of Scottish playwright David Harrower's adaptation seems more than apt. You see, Harrower did more than wrestle the five act play down to a 90 minute single act and even shortening the title. He altered Ibsen's text so that Stockmann's targets go beyond the town's politicians to include the whole consumer society and our apathetic selves.

Harrower's head to toe, slimmed down text sticks to the essential story. A small only recently impoverished town has regained its prosperity as a result of opening a profitable spa. Dr Stockmann enjoys his popularity as the chief medical officer and shares the townspeople's pleasure in living well once again. When he discovers that the town's baths are toxic, he naively expects to be acclaimed for his revelation but instead finds the whole town against him. That includes the mayor (who happens to be his brother who appointed him to the job to begin with), the liberal newspaper editor and self-interested businessmen. The enmity from the business community also strikes close to home since the heaviest pollution comes from local tannery, which is owned by his father in law Morten Kiil. To cut to the chase, this volatile situation pits Stockmann and his wife and children against the entire community and sets off his famous confrontation with the community.

In a small company like the Pearl there's no budget for a large ensemble. However, the company's small theater makes breaking the fourth wall and turning the audience into the community work quite well. When Stockmann's rants about democracy being taken over by a majoritY of people who are stupid, the audience-cum-townspeople, at least at the performance I attended, burst into knowing laughter. What doesn't work out quite as well are director Hal Brooks' casting choice.

Theater goers have become accustomed enough to color blind casting to buy into Stockmann, his wife and one son being African-Americans. The problem here is that the performances all around are more okay than outstanding

Jimonn Cole does catch some of the good doctor's fire during the big confrontational scene, but neither he or Guiesseppe Jones's Peter Stockmann ever capture the necessary emotional depth and tension of this familial conflict. Nilaja Sun, who was so terrific in her solo play One Child which Mr. Brooks also directed, just isn't directed to make a strong impression as Mrs. Stockmann. She does get to change her outfits more than anyone else, though that doesn't seem all that necessary.

Another rather odd casting choice is to have Carol Schultz play Horster the supportive ship's captain. Having a woman play this part seems less a means for being gender as well as color blind, but a way to include at least a few Pearl regulars. The only other old time Pearl company member, Dominc Cuskern is as usual fine but also has a minor part as Kill, the town's major polluter.

One standout in the otherwise competent but not especially memorable performances is John Keating as the smarmy printer Alasken. My quibbles about the cast don't apply to the production's designers. Harry Feiner has created a handsome pale wood interior to serve as the Stockmann home, the newspaper office, and the town meeting. Jane Shaw and Marika Kent imbue it all with evocative lighting and sound. Brooks also does a good job handling the scene to scene transitions.

If there's one wish that this revival, like others I've seen leaves me with it's this: If only I could see this play without having it bring any number of more recent parallel situations to mind.

For more about Ibsen and links to plays we've reviewed (Including the Pearl's revival of Rossmerholm and our London critic's review of Harrower's adaptation with a different cast and director), check out our playwright album's Ibsen Backgrounder .

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Public Enemy
David Harrower version of Henrik Ibsen parable
Directed by Hal Brooks
Cast: Jimonn Cole (Stockmann), Dominic Cuskern (Kill), Arielle Goldman (Petra), Guiesseppe Jones (Mayor), John Keating (Aslasken), Alex Purcell (Billing), Carol Schultz (Horster), Nilaja Sun (Mrs. Stockman), Robbie Tann (Hovstad), Alex Haynes (Morten), David Vino (Eilif).
Scenery: Harry Feiner
Costumes: Barbara A. Bell
Sound: Jane Shaw
Lighting: Marika Kent
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Stage Manager: Marci Skolnick
Running Time: 90 minutes
Pearl Theater West 42nd Street
From 9/29/16; opening 10/09/16; closing 11/06/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/07 press preview

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