Review: In ‘Enemy of the People,’ Water and Democracy Are Poisoned

Elections in Weston Springs are so easy. When a query comes earlier than the townspeople, they confer in small teams, attain a consensus, press a button marked “X” or “O” and get the end result, all inside a minute. To a New Yorker, that sounds good proper about now.

But alas, Weston Springs, with its world-famous hot-water baths and grass-roots democracy, isn’t actual. It’s the invented setting for “Enemy of the People,” Robert Icke’s gratifying if gimmicky rewrite of the 1882 Ibsen drama initially referred to as “En Folkefiende.” That play, structured historically in 5 acts, had 11 talking roles and heaps of extras; Icke’s 95-minute model, which opened Wednesday evening at the Park Avenue Armory, is a shiny one-woman present starring the formidable Ann Dowd as everybody.

Well, not fairly everybody. For the event, the Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall has been arrange as a sort of laboratory of democracy, with a map of Weston Springs painted on the flooring and 45 tables, seating two to 5 residents every, deployed at completely different “addresses.” My pod of 4 was at Table 16, in any other case often known as 16 Waivers Way.

So the viewers performs the extras, every desk getting one vote. As Dowd explains in a short prologue, the outcomes of the 5 “elections” that happen throughout the efficiency will have an effect on the path and even the content material of the play, and assist us reply its overriding query: “What does this community think?”

I’m undecided that purpose was ever achieved. True, we voted on points raised by the plot, which includes a public well being disaster that butts up towards an financial one when Professor Joan Stockman, chief scientific officer of the Weston baths, discovers lead in the water at ranges even greater than the ranges present in Flint, Mich., in 2015. (In the Ibsen model, the pollutant was apparently salmonella, which precipitated typhoid.) Surely the factor to do, Joan assumes, is to close down the joint till new pipes might be laid, regardless of price.

But the mayor — who, because it occurs, is Joan’s older brother, Peter — doesn’t see it that means, or can’t afford to. The baths usually are not merely profitable in themselves however have introduced prosperity to the city as an entire. Since the complicated was refurbished, tourism has elevated ninefold, drawing individuals to its swimming pools and potations whereas additionally creating an ancillary business of high-end inns and candle retailers. When Peter learns that remediating the downside will take at the very least 5 years, and untold hundreds of thousands, he conveniently begins to suspect that the science is unsuitable.

The formidable Ann Dowd performs all of the characters, together with the two opposing siblings at the coronary heart of the play.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

That each siblings are performed by Dowd is an issue, and a plus. The plus is that Dowd is, as followers of “The Leftovers” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” know, an endlessly and effortlessly compelling actor, apparently unafraid of any excessive of human depravity. Her baseline naturalism — simply her face, taking in her posture, you imagine that whomever she’s taking part in exists — permits for some terrifying flights into surreal psychology.

That’s the downside, too. Ibsen already loaded the deck in creating the contrasting siblings: Thomas — as Joan was initially recognized — was candid however excitable and boastful; Peter, devious however phlegmatic and cordial. Because Dowd is taking part in each, and as a result of she is a tiny determine on Hildegard Bechtler’s large catwalk of a stage because it branches out amid the tables, she should push each characterizations to extremes.

So Peter, as projected reside on jumbo screens, is now not a worm however a snake, making arguments that (it appeared to me) had been totally clear of their hypocrisy. And Joan, in return, is a mad fury as an alternative of a mere idealist. As she bullies her brother, she undermines her positions by making them appear private and even pathological. (She’s nasty to her husband, too, as Ibsen’s character by no means was to his spouse.) Far from receiving the gratitude she expects for saving lives, she manages to make a mayor who’s prepared to sacrifice individuals for revenue appear nearly prudent and affordable.

I suppose that isn’t so excessive. We have solely to have a look at Flint — or at Covid-19 or the constructing collapse in Surfside, Fla. — to see how typically, in actual life, the recommendation of specialists could also be perverted by political and even democratic means. (Condominium boards, at least municipal officers, are elected.) Biologists, virologists and engineers are just a few of the modern-day scientists who turn into “enemies of the people” by attempting to save lots of them.

But neither Ibsen’s Joan nor Icke’s Thomas is ready to cease at advancing a lifesaving campaign; each lengthen their arguments into bizarre, troubling territory. Enraged, Joan shouts that “molecules are not subject to majorities” and “facts are not a democracy” — viewpoints that quickly merge right into a profoundly elitist and even eugenicist worldview. In a correctly organized society, she suggests, solely specialists can be allowed to vote. Or perhaps solely her.

In writing Joan this manner, Icke, the director of the acclaimed Andrew Scott “Hamlet” in London and the excessively brutal “1984” on Broadway, places an excellent heavier thumb on the scales than Ibsen, by no means a lightweight contact, did. Clearly the try is to stability the arguments, or at the very least to stability our antipathy towards them. The voting likewise forces our arms, as the poll points are worded tendentiously. The final of them — “Who is the enemy of the people?” — requires you to decide on between Peter and Joan, as if that had been how democracy labored or was even, at the very least at Table 16, a query.

In Robert Icke’s model of the Ibsen basic, the viewers is pressured to think about whether or not democracy is the identical as consensus, and their votes decide the path of the play.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The voting idea is additional trivialized by the doomy “quiz” music that performs as you deliberate, and, extra fatally, by the end result’s barely altering the expertise of the play. Apparently, Dowd performs completely different scenes at two factors, relying on the tally; on Wednesday, we met an area doctor and the mayor’s public relations chief, whereas different audiences could spend time with Joan’s husband and a newspaper editor. But anybody viewers can solely know the one sequence it sees, so the dramatic worth of the gimmick is moot.

Which is to not say that “Enemy of the People” is just too. Though it has stripped away most of the element that Ibsen makes use of to dramatize the means civic crises come up from (and filter again all the way down to) home ones, it gives a compensatory problem. Icke asks us to dramatize these points for ourselves, at our personal tables. Communally, we’re pressured to think about: Is democracy the identical as consensus? Is the poll the finest guarantor of good coverage?

I ask as a result of the 4 residents of 16 Waivers Way, break up 2-2 on a key difficulty and unable to resolve how you can resolve, ran out of time with out hitting ‘X’ or ‘O.’ Ranked voting, anybody?

Enemy of the People
Through Aug. eight at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; 212-933-5812, armoryonpark.org. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.