by Sergei Burbank · January 12, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #32 Sergei Burbank looks at JDX - A Public Enemy part of the Under the Radar Festival tg STAN’s reimagined production of Ibsen’s A Public Enemy, presented as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, presents a hearty challenge to anyone attempting to describe it. In the plot of the play, Thomas Stockman, a local physician, discovers that the water for the local spa, a tourist magnet, is heavily polluted. Peter Stockman, his brother (and the town’s mayor), refuses to take any action -- as any proposed remedy would be a threat to the local economy. Thomas Stockman attempts to widen his awareness campaign, initially with the support of the local newspaper publisher (who has an ax to grind with the town’s political establishment) and the leader of the Property Owners Association (who wishes to display the growing political power of the local bourgeoisie). However, when the mayor makes it clear how devastating disclosure of the pollution would be to everyone’s bottom line, the campaigning doctor finds himself increasingly isolated as the town’s leaders and the wider population grow increasingly hostile to the truth -- and to the doctor himself, who is unwilling to remain silent. During a climactic public meeting, as the mechanics of democracy are used to discredit and ultimately silence him, his intransigence results in his being branded ‘a public enemy.’
One of the greatest by-products of events such as this festival are how the introduction of brilliant productions from other theatrical cultures illuminate elements of our own that accept without question. The lobby of the Public, like many theater lobbies in New York City, is filled by a crowd with diverse appearances, genders, ages, and accents. That multiplicity is only enhanced during this festival, so you think nothing of the man in the oddly fitting suit and continental accent that you pass on your way into the space. It’s only as the room fills that you realize he is, in fact, a member of the cast, greeting people on their way in. The entire cast occupies the space before curtain, and while that, in and of itself, is not so alien to New York theater (the display of process, of actors inhabiting roles before your very eyes, is a familiar trope to American audiences) how they occupy the space before and during the production is anything but conventional.
The program credits the company not only with the production, but its “technique,” and what they mean by the latter is immediately apparent: unlike productions that allow an audience to witness actors before they begin performing, there is no glass wall between performer and audience. The actors are exposed to the audience’s gaze, and return the gaze with alacrity: they make eye contact with audience members, point out empty seats, and engage in conversation if they feel so inclined. It is incredibly disconcerting for an American audience, accustomed as they are to hiding in plain sight.
The company’s technique pervades every atom of the performance itself: the nine speaking roles are split between four actors in a mostly bare space: their every line is underscored by the steady narration of a prompter (Stijn Van Opstal), who outlines stage furniture, props, and gestures, as the actors use none themselves. The stage directions are read in English, but the production itself is in Dutch with English supertitles. With the exception of Frank Vercruyssen’s Tomas Stockman, roles are not exclusively assigned. An actress will be playing a role, but when another character enters the room, she will pass on the current role to her scene partner in order to inhabit the next. The play is enacted at a frenetic pace -- all five acts are completed within an eye-watering hour and forty minutes -- and the collective result is both dizzying and exhilarating.
The result of the choices is an artful undermining of simply everything that American audiences have come to expect not only of a theatrical performance, but also Ibsen himself: it is never ponderous or overserious. The overall theatrical alienation/reinvention is enhanced by the fact that on multiple occasions the group will sometimes lose its way and choose to restart an act by collective agreement. They also will think nothing of breaking character and speaking -- in English -- to the audience. They do not pretend that the supertitles don’t exist, instead pointing to the screen to emphasize their point, switching to English, and at times openly waiting for the audience to finish reading a line before continuing. The company evinces a complete openness to the room: we are not invited to watch a pre-rehearsed performance (although it certainly is -- this production has been in circulation since 1993), but instead a singular event that can never unfurl the same way twice.
These elements do not obscure, but rather enhance, what a remarkable artifact Ibsen’s original text already is: when the members of tg STAN began their adaptation, Bill de Blasio was a nearly anonymous aide in Mayor David Dinkins’ administration; in 2014, the issues the play raises -- the tyranny of the majority, reselling enrichment of the elite as a public good -- are incredibly relevant flashpoints of contention. There could hardly be a better moment for this gleefully anarchic production, and there are few better ways to spend a couple hours’ time.