AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Florian Borchmeyer (Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman). Runs to October 26, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday, October 4 and 11 at 2:30 pm. $27-$53, some $15 rush. 416-531-1827, tarragontheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
The Tarragon opens its season with an exciting production of a rarely staged Ibsen play, An Enemy of The People.
The company’s artistic director, Richard Rose, impressed by a production at Berlin’s Schaubuhne Theatre, has mounted his own version of Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation, translated here by Maria Milisavljevic (whose own play, Abyss, runs at the Tarragon in the winter).
The adaptation and its translation speak directly to some of today’s key concerns: the conflict between big business interests and environmental guardians individual rights versus what society defines as important.
Thomas Stockmann (Joe Cobden), a scientist in a small Canadian town just starting to have success with its new health baths – he’s the medical officer – discovers that factories upstream are polluting the baths’ waters a new water system is necessary to remedy the problem. Thinking he’ll be applauded for his revelation, he offers his report to friends at a local newspaper (Matthew Edison as the editor-in-chief and Brandon McGibbon as a reporter).
But Thomas’s uptight brother, Peter (Rick Roberts), a politician who chairs the baths’ board of directors and is therefore Thomas’s boss, thinks differently, especially given the cost of a new pipeline and the town’s potential ruin if information is leaked. By the end, he’s not the only one criticizing Thomas’s findings and motives.
Engaging from the start, Rose’s production moves the action along quickly, filling the theatre with striking images (Michelle Tracey’s chalkboard set, a perspective design on which things are written and painted, lit by Jason Hand, is a show in itself), heady debate and thrilling theatrical moments.
His cast is first rate, beginning with Cobden’s boyish, initially naive and then explosive Thomas, whose physical postures make their own character statement. He’s not afraid to show the blinkered egotism and self-satisfaction that are part of Thomas’s personality.
There’s also fine work by Tamara Podemski as Thomas’s largely supportive wife, herself in danger of being co-opted by larger moneyed forces, and Richard McMillan as her entrepreneurial father, quietly sinister until he reveals a truly devilish nature.
The newspapermen, including Tom Barnett as the paper’s publisher (who proves to be a conservative-thinking revolutionary), are striking characters. The play’s larger societal conflict is played out in miniature here, with the left-leaning reporter and editor seeing the well-to-do publisher, head of the ratepayers’ association, as part of problem.
Some of the most arresting scenes are those between Cobden and Roberts, whose battles grow from sibling rivalries to intellectual confrontations and angry fist fights.
But perhaps the production’s most magnetic episode is a public forum that Thomas calls to have his ideas heard. The theatre viewers become the forum’s audience as we’re asked to offer our own opinions on what we’ve seen and heard, a debate tied directly into our everyday concerns about education, the arts and government.
The scene is a real discussion in the service of the play and its ideas, and sometimes the audience squirms with the responses offered Ford Nation came up the night I was there. But the talented actors, quick on their feet, are ready to argue with us and drive us to think.
Not every element works, though. The use of music could be more integral, and Thomas’s long, impassioned speech at the forum distances rather than pulls us in further, though the following discussion grounds the action again.
Even so, this Enemy is intelligent, well-argued and passionately dramatic. Don’t miss it.