Lies, Damned Lies, and the Inconvenient Truth

photo by Robert M. Powell

by Jeff Grygny

At the mythic dawn of civilization, problems like plagues or family tensions were easy to resolve: you just found a goat, blamed everything on it, threw it off a cliff, and everyone felt better. The same principle (minus the goat) played out in Oedipus Rex, one of the foundations of Western drama, wherein the protagonist, searching for the guilty party, discovers that it is himself (he doesn’t  take this information well).  

Now Henrik Ibsen is regarded as one of the fathers of theatrical realism, but he often laced his everyday dramas with mythic themes. An Enemy of the People— which is currently playing in a gigantified adaptation by Theatre Gigante as Enemy of the People—is Ibsen’s satirical study of small town scapegoating. First published in 1882, it is perhaps to nobody’s surprise, completely relevant today. You can sum up the entire play in Upton Sinclair’s pithy epigram: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

In a way, director/adapter Isabelle Kralj takes the theme back to its origins in Greek tragedy, adding stylized movement, songs, and the direct-address delivery often favored in Theatre Gigante’s work. Jettisoning Ibsen’s five acts with their complexities of character and relationships, this is essentially a zippy 80-minute-long political cartoon.

The actors, dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts, with abstract blocking and nameless characters, have really little more to do than hit their marks and speak their lines clearly and with conviction, and this they do very effectively: Emmitt Morgans, playing a whistle-blowing doctor, travels the journey from a civic-minded authority to a shunned outcast, at first modestly gratified to be doing his community some good, and gradually becoming more and more frustrated, putting up a good fight, and finally, in defeat, becoming a bitter self-righteous loner. His final words: “The strongest man is the one who stands alone.” could terrifyingly apply to any number of modern rebels, and it’s sobering to see him end up there.  As his nemesis, the town’s crooked, venal mayor, David Flores is too classy to go full-on Trump, though nobody can hear this character’s truth-twisting rhetoric without thinking of our con man-in-chief. Ben Yela, as a troubadour/chorus, adds welcome emotional variety with his musicianship and acting skills, commenting on the action while rendering passable impressions of several well-known singer-songwriters. Local tunesmith Jason Powell contributes a handful of tossed-off ditties, each one riffing on its chosen theme. His opening motet to water, for example, goes in part:

Two parts hydrogen
One part oxygen
Bonded covalently
Water is all.

photo by Robert M. Powell

The play’s very relevance to so many current issues, from poisoned water to global climate change—and the floods of denials from those responsible—has the side effect of draining the show of almost any dramatic tension. We have seen this story so many times before, we know exactly what’s going to happen the minute the mayor rejects the doctor’s proposal to site the town’s new health spa upstream of the factory on the grounds that it would be too expensive. We are left contemplating an all-too familiar tale played out in a novel and entertainingly straightforward  way. Some may find it cathartic, others merely depressing. But, like Ibsen’s original, Enemy of the People lets nobody off the hook, pointing out, in the nicest way possible, the hypocrisy of caring for others only to the extent that it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice anything ourselves. And in the final defiant speech by the doctor, it shows the dangerous energies that we play with when we rush to find someone else to blame.

Theatre Gigante Presents

Enemy of the People

inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People

adapted, created and directed by Isabelle Kralj

text written by Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson

playing through February 16

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