Enemy of the People at the Park Avenue Armory remakes Ibsen’s drama into a striking one-woman show starring Ann Dowd that forces us to realize our complicity in the lead poisoning of the Flint, Michigan water system; the collapse of the condo in Surfside, Florida; the violent debate over when to reopen; the attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci; the attack on the Capitol Building.
Director Robert Icke doesn’t explicitly mention any of these events, but the ethical conflicts that they illustrate were certainly on the minds of many of the theatergoers, because all of us had to make decisions about similar conflicts in the play.
Five times throughout the piece, the action is interrupted, a question is posed, and we’re asked to press either the X or the O button; the tabulated results projected onto the giant electric billboard determine which scene then follows.
Such a process helped make this production ultimately feel exactly right for the times in which we’re living – although in a way that might not be obvious.
Making each nightly audience in effect the co-author may be Icke’s most radical revision, but in truth little remains recognizable in the 90-minute piece from the 19th century, five-act Norwegian drama, except the basic outline of the story. Dr. Stockman (now Joan), a scientist for the small (American) town of Westin Springs has discovered that the water is contaminated with lead, and she demands that the mayor shut down the baths. The mayor, Peter Stockman, who happens to be Joan’s brother, says that closing the baths, which are a tourist attraction and the economic engine of the town, would destroy Westin Springs.
As the conflict increases and complications unfold, Dowd paces back and forth on a huge catwalk of a stage in the middle of the Armory’s cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall, while we listen to her on headphones, and watch her on a giant monitor (since she’s usually too far away, or has her back turned to us.) She alternates between narrating the tale like a storyteller, and portraying all the characters in a scene. Dowd is a mesmerizing actress, probably best known as leader Patti in “The Leftovers” and the frightening Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but she’s not a champion impersonator. In the play, she’s helped along by a trick of photography; each of her characters is presented from a different camera angle (in a back-and-forth between Peter and Joan, we’ll see Peter facing right, and then Joan facing left.)
The original play has 11 speaking characters, but then also the men, women and children of the town, enough to fill a town meeting. Dowd portrays only a handful of the central characters, and one or two newly invented ones (depending on which scenes are used.) We the audience portray the townspeople.
Forty-five tables are spread throughout the theater. At each table, there is a “pod” of up to five audience members. Each pod gets only one vote, which means we have to reach consensus, before choosing either the X or the O button.
The first vote was easy, a kind of try-out: Should Joan drink coffee or tea? Our pod agreed on coffee, and so did 89 percent of the pods, according to the huge electronic billboard. Throughout the play then, there were occasions where Joan or somebody else is drinking or serving coffee
But then the questions became more complex—should Joan’s report of the lead contamination be made public right away or just to the board of the Weston Springs Company, owners of the baths, proceeding cautiously so as not to cause panic. It seemed clear to me that it should be made public, but I was shocked that my pod-mates – all long-time friends – thought otherwise; and so did 76 percent of the pods.
For each question, we are given just a minute to vote, with a countdown clock in a monitor on our table. This was not enough time, and we didn’t have enough information; and some of the questions were outright unfair, requiring more options than the two we were forced to choose between. And all that seemed to be the point.
Our struggle to decide adds a depth of thought and engagement that’s no less effective because we’re manipulated into it. Icke somewhat tips his off to what he’s doing in the debate that Peter has with Joan.
Peter:“This is complicated. I’m saying we are looking into the baths and we fix whatever’s wrong. But you’re racing ahead, you’re making this good or bad, hero or villain, science or cover-up, because that suits you. But it shouldn’t be a binary choice. It isn’t this or this.”
Joan: “I agree. You should have shut down the baths when I told you what was wrong.”
Such exchanges, and later debates about majority rule, present both characters as simultaneously rational and unreasonable, and seem intended to make it harder to choose sides.
It became clear to me that any choice we made (other than the tea or coffee) would lead to consequences we didn’t expect, and didn’t want. This made us inevitably complicit in other people’s pain. It also drove home the impossibility of a perfect choice and the difficulty of decision-making in a democracy.
That the audience members had to spend time debating choices makes this “Enemy of the People” the exact right show for this moment. This is not because we as Americans are facing some critical choices ourselves, although we are, but because, as the city and its theaters reopen, it offers an excuse and an opportunity for people who might not have seen each other for more than a year to get together in person and actually talk. At the end of the show, our pod sat at our table discussing the issues until the ushers chased us out.
Enemy of the People
Through August 8
After Ibsen, by Robert Icke
With Ann Dowd
Set and Costume Design by Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting Design by Natasha Chivers
Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman
Running time: about 95 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $55 to $100 “A limited quantity of $28 same-day rush tickets are now available”