‘Enemy of the People’ brings ‘choose your own adventure’ spin to theatre

Park Ave. Armory
The Park Avenue Armory presents Enemy of the People after Henrik Ibsen, by Robert Icke, with Ann Dowd in the Drill Hall on June 24, 2021.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

Think of a classic play. Now, imagine seeing an experimental production of that play in a cavernous drill hall in which the text has been adapted and updated to the present day, a single actress is playing all of the characters and incessantly pacing along a long wooden catwalk and – now get this – the audience members are listening to her via headphones, watching her on oversized video screens, sitting at conference tables and voting in groups over how the play should move forward in a “choose your own adventure” book sort of way. 

That, in a nutshell, summarizes English director-playwright Robert Icke’s bizarre and bumpy yet intriguing new version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 social problem drama “An Enemy of the People” (now titled simply “Enemy of the People”) at the Park Avenue Armory, which stars Emmy winner Ann Dowd (who played the terrifying Patti Levin on HBO’s “The Leftovers” and currently plays the even more terrifying Aunt Lydia on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”).

In the play, Norwegian scientist Thomas Stockmann (now the Americanized Joan Stockman), learns that the town’s water supply has been poisoned by environmental toxins and its tourist destination baths must be shut down immediately. Joan’s brother, the town mayor, who fears bankrupting the town and having his own negligence exposed, rallies the town against his sister and labels her as an “enemy of the people.” 

Needless to say, one can’t help but think of those in the real world who try to ignore difficult facts or propose alternate realities to suit their own needs and desires, no matter the consequences. 

Icke’s modernized elements (including making the protagonist female, emphasizing her character flaws while making her brother more sympathetic, and working in internet rumors, limited healthcare and frustrations with democratic norms) work quite well – so much so that one would like to see him direct the show in a traditional theater with a full cast and without alienating video and audio effects and gimmicky audience participation (including voting via game show-like buzzers on questions ranging from who is the real enemy of the people to whether tea is preferable to coffee).  

Dowd, in spite of her robust presence, struggles to navigate playing multiple characters and delivering third-person narration all at once, so much so that the audience is left relying on video editing to figure out who she is portraying at any given moment. 

Of course, one must concede that most of the production choices (i.e. single performer, reduced running time, socially-distanced pod seating, vast empty space) are practical necessities in order for an indoor drama to be safely produced at this point in the pandemic. Personally speaking, this marked the first indoor performance of a drama – as opposed to an outdoor show or an indoor site installation without any live actors – that I had attended in over a year.  

“Enemy of the People” runs through Aug. 8 at the Park Avenue Armory. 643 Park Ave., armoryonpark.org.

In Other Theater News…

The Shakespeare in the Park production of “Merry Wives” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of  “Seize the King” at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park is now in previews…“Waitress” will return to Broadway for a limited run beginning Sept. 2 starring singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles…The Metropolitan Opera and the stagehands union have finally agreed upon a new contract, hopefully allowing the Met to reopen in September….”Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” will be cut down from two parts to one when it returns to Broadway in November.