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Shows Worth Seeing:

An Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen
in a version by Florian Borchmeyer
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Box office: (718) 636-4100


Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is a great play that has grown a tad creaky after 131 years. The story of a doctor who is thwarted and demonized by craven friends and neighbors after discovering that the so-called “healing” water in his booming spa-town is poisoned, its premise has become rather obvious in the age of faith-based science and climate-change denial. Well-meaning people become weak and corrupt when their own interests are at stake. We get it. We’re nauseated by it all the time. And even sharp and brightly acted period productions of Enemy, like the one directed by Doug Hughes on Broadway last year, starring Richard Thomas, can’t seem to make the nausea very surprising or inspiring. This eloquent, tightly constructed drama comes off too much like a Johnny-come-lately civics lecture.

Leave it to the German director Thomas Ostermeier, fearless reinventor (and popularizer) of modern dramatic classics, to find a vein of energy in this tale that can still pulsate with urgent life. As he previously did with Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House and The Master Builder, Ostermeier has translated Ibsen’s action to contemporary yuppie circumstances, this time using a radically rewritten text by Florian Borchmeyer. The economic uncertainty of the town, the new-parent anxiety of the Stockmanns, the political backstabbing, and the brotherly rivalry have all been retained from the original but they appear now in the context of cell phones and the internet news cycle. This doctor plays in a band with his wife and journalist friends, for instance, a handy device for scene segues that unfortunately drops away late in the action. The physical world is defined by Jan Pappelbaum’s installation-like set whose blackboard walls are covered with graffiti-like chalk drawings. The space has a wonderfully cool, flexible and creative air in the spirit of the white-board walls of today’s tech geeks—that is, until everyone’s inflexibility becomes horribly apparent in the final scenes.

The show’s biggest gamble is in the public meeting Dr. Stockmann arranges to apprise the townspeople of the truth about the baths. In the original play, after interruptions by his brother (the mayor) and his allies, this speech turns into a digressive harangue about the drawbacks of democracy (“the majority is always wrong”). Ostermeier and Borchmeyer multiplied the digression a hundredfold, sending Stockmann on a 15-minute rhetorical tear about democracy, international monetary policy, big food, big oil, climate change, German party politics, revolutionary theory, third-way liberalism and much, much more, after which the audience is asked to vote on whether they agree. The play proper then stops for another 15 minutes and becomes a sort of TV-style talk show where individual spectators explain, with wireless mics, why they voted as they did. Whatever you may think of the political substance of this discussion (it was rather thin the night I attended), you will probably see its extraordinary theatrical value. Never mind the gimmicky paint-ball flinging that followed. The Harvey’s lobby was abuzz with discussion for a long, long while after the show.



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