18 October 2011

I tried, but couldn't, come up with a good "Norwegian Wood" pun for a title! (A review of Playhouse on Park's An Enemy of the People)

I have a fondness for the new production of Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic An Enemy of the People at Playhouse on Park because, in my senior year at the Covington Latin School in 1977,** the senior class mounted a production of the play.  I offer this tidbit because I never have seen another production – and was quite bummed that the 1978 Steve McQueen film never made it to wide release, or at least was never released in Cincinnati – and so I’ve been waiting a long time.  (And, no, I don’t have Netflix.)

I’m happy to report that I enjoyed this production, directed by Kyle Fabel…especially the very strong performances of the two leads.  In their portrayals of the brothers Stockmann (the doctor and the mayor at odds over the poisoned spring that jeopardizes the spa in which the city has invested its future), both Jeremiah Wiggins and Michael McKenzie earn excellent marks.  In neither case is his character merely a political position masquerading as a character; there’s a richness and depth to their brothers.  The personal, professional, and political, all blend into a rough, dangerous mix that, one is certain, cannot end well.

The supporting cast is less effectively dramatized by Miller…and results in more uneven performances.  The “radical” editor Hovstad, for instance, makes far too swift a turnaround in his meeting with the mayor, but any whiplash suffered by the actor, Aaron Barcelo, falls solely at the feet of the playwright.  The females, wife Catherine (Coleen Sciacca) and daughter Petra (Allison Layman) aren’t given a great deal to do either, but an audience cannot but like the spunky Petra…her father’s favorite, for sure!    

The production, as is always the case at POP, is a cleanly and effectively simple one in its set, lighting, and costumes.  This, however, is the first time that I felt the production was hurt by the small size of the cast.  While crowd scenes can be problematic to stage effectively (and difficult to cast since the extras are only needed for a single scene), the crowd scene at the Captain’s house needed, well, a crowd.  The larger speeches were still very effective, thanks to the two Stockmanns, but the rest of it – which hinges so much on the dynamic of the crowd in relation to the speakers – fell a bit flat.   

(One really nitpicky point: I’m pretty sure, given the debate over how poisoned the city’s medicinal springs are, the one thing we do not want to see the good doctor do before he faces the angry mob at Captain Horster’s house is take a big drink of water!)

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about An Enemy of the People is its bloody timely message.  From corporate greed and self-serving, political butt-covering, to the strength – and naivete – of the ethical, the play remains as true to our times as it was when Ibsen wrote it in 1882.  For that reason alone, it’s well worth seeing, but the performances of Wiggins and McKenzie make it a treat.     

Oh, btw, I was Morten, the older son, in the Latin School production.  Thanks for asking!

 **This was back in the time before high schools were required apparently to select only shows that students know so that, the reasoning goes, they’ll want to audition.  An exaggeration?  I think not.  How else can it be explained that, despite a century of great musicals from which to choose, both New Britain and Newington High Schools are doing Hairspray this year, while another three (yes, three!) area schools are producing the timeless Legally Blonde the Musical? (I simply don’t get it, especially given that most high school performers will perform anytime and anywhere in anything…indeed, open the refrigerator and, as soon as the light goes on, the young actors will start emoting all over the kitchen!) 

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