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March 26, 2024
The more things change, The more they stay the same
An Enemy of the People
Photo by Emilio Madrid

It’s good to know that classical theater continues to be relevant. Although “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen was written in 1882, it feels pertinent today, and as I sat in the Circle in the Square watching the latest revival, I considered how apt the theme is in today’s world.

In the drama, the main character is Dr. Stockmann (portrayed by Jeremy Strong of “Succession"fame.) His antagonist is the entire community, notably represented by his brother, Peter the mayor (Michael Imperioli.) Initially the townspeople are depicted as sheeplike and easily swayed, yet they are actually motivated by self-interest.

Having some concerns about the curative waters of the town’s baths, Stockmann sends some samples to the local university. Unfortunately, his fears prove to be true, and he learns that the waters are filled with dangerous bacteria. Rather than curing people, the baths will sicken them and probably kill many. At first, when he shares the information with the newspaper editor and others, they praise him as a hero. Yet later, upon realizing that they and the town’s economy will suffer, the same people turn on him, labeling him “an enemy of the people," actually attacking him. His daughter is fired from her teaching job and his young son is beaten up at school.

Set in the late 19th century when few people understood the notion of bacteria, the play includes a bit of humor when Stockmann’s father-in-law envisions bacteria as animals in the waters and asks why they can’t be killed with rat poison.

I couldn't help but think of all the modern day pollution on the environment sickening people. Our air and water are being polluted by unregulated industries, and big companies are causing harm, by suppressing information in the name of profit.

In the new version of the play by Amy Herzog, some of Ibsen’ s language has been modernized, so Petra, Stockmann's daughter, is a “sight for sore eyes.” The subtle changes of dialogue makes the audience feel more comfortable. In fact, the only things that date the play are the costumes and props.

Under the direction of Sam Gold, the Circle in The Square stage becomes more intimate. “An Enemy of the People” is in two acts and a ‘pause' when everyone is invited to enjoy a (free) drink) and a few songs sung by the performers.

The theater lights remain on as the audience becomes the townspeople at a town meeting that Stockmann has convened to share the contents of his report.

As Stockmann, Strong is earnest and passionate and gives it as much energy as he can muster, but his performance feels flat. I’ve never seen “Succession” but imagine that many in the audience came specifically to see him. Well known from “The Sopranos,” Imperioli plays the bully and is pompous and arrogant. His acting feels too reminiscent of the TV character. The costume he wears, particularly his mayor’s hat, an object of derision by his brother, reminded me of Mr. Monopoly (costume design by David Zinn.)

David Patrick Kelly as Morten Kiil, Stockmann’s father-in-law, is a standout, both for his acting and his singing. Victoria Pedretti as Petra does a good job as Stockmann's daughter, adding a touch of feminism. While the casting is diverse, it is also uneven and several of the performers seem amateurish.

Sadly “An Enemy of the People” reminds us of the nature of people and how they often disregard the common good for their own welfare. Anyone who stands up against the masses may fall victim to it. Although Ibsen’s play was written in the 1880’s, his theme still holds true today. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Circle in the Square Theatre
235 W. 50th St.
New York, NY

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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