My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

An Enemy of the People: wildly entertaining political horrors

by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

The remount, "back by popular demand," of An Enemy of the People arrives trailing accolades and proclaiming a gender-bending update. It also arrives when our beloved country is engulfed in the nastiest election in memory, one that is overwhelming Canadians with an unpalatable mixture of discord, disgust and ennui. I admit to doubting that there would be enjoyment or enlightenment to be had from a pointedly political Henrik Ibsen text dating back to 1882. And I was wary of participating in any more audience participation. I was very wrong on both counts.

This version of An Enemy of the People is clever, timeless and utterly contemporary. Rick Roberts is a sly suave snake in a Stephen Harper haircut. His eyes dance with delight as he parries and obfuscates the issues, not only within the text but within the improvised audience interaction. If Harper had this much glee and charisma, the election would be emphatically in his favour. Roberts' evil enthusiasm is contagious.

The relentless momentum of An Enemy of the People comes from the inspiring design and execution, and from a successful upending of one's sense of morality and beliefs. The stage is initially a self-conscious blend of realism and starkness but, by the time it is literally whitewashed, it transforms into multiple metaphors that are blunt and breathtaking. Director Richard Rose turned down a Dora nomination as he claimed he lifted the production's ideas wholesale from a German theatre company. In that case he should get a nomination for best theft and addition of spit and polish.

We begin at a band rehearsal where what we assume are idealists work on a hilariously hipster-esque version of David Bowie's "Changes." The plot kicks in: a luxury spa is found to actually be contaminated with E. coli. The medical officer, Laura Condlin (Sextet), wants immediate action to prevent a health crisis. The town newspaper staff agrees. But the town is dependent on the spa to survive and a revamp is too expensive. And from there we descend into a quagmire of dubious morals and political expediency. The parallels to the Gardiner and our fair city's infrastructure are unstated but pointed.

By the time the audience is turned into the audience at an emergency town hall meeting, the lines between reality and theatricality, fact and fiction, are balancing precariously. Entertainment melds with social commentary and it is spectacular, a potent blend of comedy and horror. We are gleefully joining into a discussion, a heated discussion, on the merits of science vs democracy, minorities vs majorities, morals vs finances, etc, etc. 

Tom Barnett nails the bi-polar sliminess and fraudulent sincerity required of a successful modern day publisher. Kyle Mac is a supercilious editor-in-chief though his role as a sexual instigator gets lost in the blizzard of political maneuvering. That perhaps is the only stretch of credulity in An Enemy of the People: though they refer to financial difficulties, it is hard to believe that there is an independent news outlet left with many resources or influence. Lyon Smith plays troubadour,indolent eye candy and Greek chorus, and his man bun firmly grounds the action in the recent past. David Fox (No Great Mischief) gets a flashy and pivotal turn that he makes the most of, turning a trench coat into a billowing villain's cape.

That a woman has been cast in the role of the whistle-blowing Dr Stockmann does not seem like a stunt. Condlin is more than capable of being simultaneously vulnerable and dogmatic, heroic and utterly unsympathetic. She is also able to almost wrestle a too-long speech into a memorable moment using sheer passion. Her relationship with Tamara Podemski's Katarina, softens a character that could be strident. It feels natural instead of gimmicky. 

Sensibly, none of the other characters refer to the lesbianism and thus, by omission, Kathleen Wynne is evoked, bringing another political layer to the proceedings. It also, with the spa continually referred to as "the baths," stabs the heart with a memory of Dr Linda Laubenstein and her fictionalized depiction in The Normal Heart, another warrior fighting a futile and morally complicated battle. Condlin rails that the baths must be closed or more will get sick and it is impossible not to wince and realize that sometimes the right thing to do is impossible but necessary. Another layer on an entertainment that digs into one's bones and creates as many questions as it asks.

An Enemy of the People runs until Sun, Nov 1 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave.