Review: An Enemy of the People

27 Sep

An Enemy of the People,Tarragon TheaterTalk about starting with a bang. Artistic Director Richard Rose has opted to present an English translation of a German adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as the Tarragon Theatre’s 2014/2015 season opener. It sounds like the kind of project that could have easily and almost literally gotten lost in translation but Rose’s bold choice as AD of the company and equally bold choices director of the production pay off in no uncertain terms.

At the heart of Enemy is a modern moral dilemma; When Thomas Stockmann (Joe Cobden), a small town’s well-meaning doctor discovers that the town’s spa’s waters are contaminated with waste and bacteria from factories upstream from the source, he sees the problem as having a simple solution – move the spa’s water intake further upstream. But with the spa being the town’s primary source of income and his solution representing a serious threat to its financial viability, others around him, including his brother Peter (Rick Roberts) – a business-friendly town councillor – and his friend Hovstad (Matthew Edison) – the anti-establishment leaning editor of the town’s paper – react to his findings far less pragmatically, leaving him trapped in the middle of an ideological battle. Soon, Stockmann’s simple determination puts him at odds with the rest of the townsfolk – whose motivations are not all as noble – and he ultimately finds himself in the surreal position of having to defend what seemed like solid moral high ground as well as his own good standing in the community.

Although Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation may not have been penned with Canada or Toronto in mind, the parallels are hard to miss. Our contradictory economic dependence on the oil sands and distaste for its ecological consequences is the most obvious, but the less honourable side of City Hall politics, which we have become all too familiar with, also permeates the dramatic proceedings. This is most wonderfully obvious when, during a scene taking place at a town meeting, the boundaries of the production are busted wide open in glorious fashion. If there is one weakness to note, it is the occasional stylistic inconsistency of dialogue; while the production is fully modern in most respects, some lines still have the musty air of an age of didactic theatre gone-by and clash with those that have been more artfully updated.

While the ensemble cast – which also includes Tom Barnett, Brandon McGibbon, Richard McMillan, and Tamara Podemski – and their performances are all very strong (Roberts is at times particularly fun to watch romp around in hysterics), it is Rose’s unconventional staging that steals the show. Making no attempt to create a sense of visual realism, Rose imbues the production with imagery scrawled in chalk on the slate walls of the set (designed by Michelle Tracey), using the idea of “black and white” both a stylistic and thematic statement. Recognizable pop covers performed by the musically adept cast add extra layers of meaning while reinforcing the mood of artifice. Even the no-brainer concept of actors playing to the audience is tested, with Cobden at times delivering lines to the walls, effectively enhancing his sense of isolation.

The whole thing is a wonderfully slow and thought provoking burn that eventually builds to a delightful state of mania. Here’s hoping the entire season is this good.


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