Occupy 19th-Century Norway

Photo Courtesy of Broadway World

Whether through sheer coincidence or masterful timing, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway revival of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People opened last Thursday in the wake of Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary. When the play’s main character, Thomas Stockman (Boyd Gaines) declares that “the enemy is the liberal-minded majority,” it’s as though he were speaking directly to the audience of polite theatergoers who sit idle as their own government takes advantage of them.

Director Doug Hughes reinforces the connection by aiming Stockman’s climactic speech at the audience, where an ensemble playing townspeople sits in the first row. It’s a rare bit of bravura from a director known for his understated yet emotionally powerful productions like 2005’s Doubt, for which he won a Tony Award. British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s snappy adaptation, first produced in London’s Arcola Theatre in 2008, drives the point home with a few loose translations alluding to modern times. The result is that an 1882 play about a Norwegian resort town whose doctor discovers toxins in its medicinal baths, and the mayor who connives to turn everyone against him despite being the doctor’s brother, feels like a parable about the ways an apathetic majority can be duped into working against the principles of justice.

While the play can be thematically linked to various contemporary concerns—from presidential politics to global warming—it is Ibsen’s indictment of majority democracy that is most potent and is also one of the driving forces behind the Occupy movement. Hearing characters discuss 19th-century goings-on in Norway as though they’re today’s news—for instance, the mayor decides that the townspeople should pay for the repairs to the privately owned baths instead of the town’s wealthy shareholders—is an odd kind of theatrical pleasure. “If the people want change, the people would have to foot the bill,” Peter calmly states—a sentiment that sounds too familiar in light of the bank bailouts after the 2008 financial crisis.

The closest corollary to this convergence of dramatic and real events is perhaps Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play about the Salem witch trials that eerily recalls the unwarranted persecutions of the McCarthy era. But Ibsen’s drama was an unforeseen premonition rather than an intentional connection and therefore more uncanny. It also helps that Richard Thomas plays Mayor Peter Stockman with a high, silken tone reminiscent of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who himself is accused of suppressing dissent for the sake of business.

Gaines plays Thomas with the naïveté of a much younger man, as he scampers around the stage in high spirits at the beginning of the play. The doctor believes that the town will hail him as a hero for discovering its contaminated water and staunchly maintains in the drama’s early moments that the majority is on his side. Gaines keeps the play buoyant even in its most didactic moments, his youthful jaunt morphing into an arrogant stride as he pronounces himself a genius among ignorants when the town turns against him.

Richard Thomas’s performance as the mayor manages to hint at a humanity beyond his function as a symbol for government corruption, even though this subtle characterization isn’t always present in his lines. One hears a strain of sympathy in Peter’s voice as he tries to convince the doctor not to publish his report, which only makes the mayor’s subsequent betrayal of his own brother more affecting.

Unfortunately, the play does not always make for riveting theater despite its political currency. While the harmonious ensemble seamlessly portrays a foreign yet familiar consciousness, Lenkiewicz’s adaptation cuts the original play by at least a third and largely omits the already-underdeveloped emotional arcs of its supporting characters.

The allegiances of the local newspaper editor Hovstad (John Procaccino) and his assistant Billing (James Waterston) turn almost instantly when they realize that the doctor’s report will prove unpopular, as does the allegiance of their publisher Aslaksen (Gerry Bamman), who also represents the business community as head of the property owners’ association. The doctor’s daughter, Petra (Maïté Alina) displays her father’s idealism without the same opportunities to be challenged, which leaves her character static. Only Thomas’s wife Catherine, in a moving performance by Kathleen McNenny, portrays a gamut of emotions as she balances her desire to keep her children fed with her loyalty to her husband.

John Lee Beatty’s realistic-yet-minimal sets effectively close down the stage to a claustrophobic size, as though the heavy wooden beams above the characters’ heads were about to come down. Ben Stanton’s lighting evokes Scandinavia while subtly alluding to the town’s upheaval, as its acute angles produce shadows that mark the set’s walls, especially apparent during Thomas’ speech when he admonishes the townspeople for their ignorance.

These elements make Hughes’s production a model of theatrical restraint in ways that the lavish outdoor scenes of Trevor Nunn’s 1997 revival at England’s National Theatre did not. The director’s low-key approach did wonders for Doubt because it demonstrated a confidence in that play’s fine emotional shifts, but his restraint doesn’t always jive with Enemy’s penchant for bombast. Though Thomas declares that “every single exclamation point stays” when it comes to publishing his water-contamination report, it’s as though the play is staged with a series of ellipses, downplaying rather than heightening the play’s unbridled conflict.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore that performances of the play are happening while police continue to arrest Occupy protesters a few miles away, close to 150 on the September 17 anniversary of the movement while Enemy was in previews. The police actions continue under the mayor’s orders and with the tacit approval of the public, even going so far as to arrest journalists who are present to document the events.

Like Thomas Stockman, the Occupy protesters have also been branded as hopeless idealists who think they’re better than those of us who have more practical concerns. Bloomberg’s efforts to suppress the protests have largely succeeded since the Zuccotti Park raid last November left Occupy Wall Street without a central place to gather. But if Ibsen’s play can reach across a century to provoke current audiences into questioning their allegiance to capitalism and the rule of the majority, then we’re far from knowing the full effects of the Occupy movement only a year after its founding.

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An Enemy of the People       

By Henrik Ibsen; new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz; directed by Doug Hughes; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Ben Stanton; music and sound by David Van Tieghem; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Winnie Y. Lok; artistic producer, Mandy Greenfield; general manager, Florie Seery; production manager, Joshua Helman. Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200, mtc-nyc.org, telecharge.com. Through Nov. 11. Running time: two hours.

WITH: Boyd Gaines (Dr. Thomas Stockmann), Richard Thomas (Peter Stockmann), Maïté Alina (Petra Stockmann), Gerry Bamman (Aslaksen), Kathleen McNenny (Catherine Stockmann), Randall Newsome (Captain Horster), John Procaccino (Hovstad), Michael Siberry (Morten Kiil), James Waterston (Billing), John Robert Tillotson (the Drunk) and Mike Boland, Victoria Frings, Andrew Hovelson and Ray Virta (Townspeople).

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