Hal Brooks

Ibsen as Detox

When newspaper editor Hovstad cries, "We must destroy this myth that our leaders are infallible," in the rousing performance of Public Enemy at the Pearl Theatre Company, the audience titters and sighs. That same day, the Washington Post had released a tape of presidential nominee Donald Trump making extremely lewd remarks about women. With Trump's words ringing in the collective consciousness of the audience, playwright David Harrower's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play An Enemy of the People has transposed an almost 150-year-old story about small-town bureaucracy to the higher, tenser key of our present-day political landscape. That is not to say that Public Enemy is toxic, exhausting or anything like the American political process has been this past year. On the contrary, it rejuvenates the public with an eloquent tale of justice and ambition. From left: John Keating as Aslasken, Jimonn Cole as Thomas Stockman and Alex Purcell as Billing. Top: Jones with Jimonn Cole as his brother Peter. Photos by Russ Rowland.

Director Hal Brooks, who is artistic director of the Pearl, has confirmed the company's commitment to showcasing incisive, relevant classical theater with Harrower's masterly take on one of the Norwegian playwright's lesser-known plays. Written as a biting response to critics, whose moralistic reviews he despised, Ibsen deliberately set out to magnify the hypocrisy of human nature, and how it is writ especially large in political processes. He chooses to place his little human drama in a fairly provincial town, where the family of Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Jimmon Cole) and his wife (Nilaja Sun) is enjoying a life of newly-found comfort—they're on the upswing after some hard financial times.

Also in the mix are the Stockmanns' friends: fiery newspapermen Hovstad (Robert Tann) and Billing (Alex Purcell), and world-weary sailor Horster (Carol Schultz). Thomas's brother, Peter (Guiesseppe Jones), is the disciplined, severe, and fastidious mayor of the town; in short, he is nothing like his open, intellectual and charismatic brother. When Thomas discovers that the town's famous baths are swimming with lethal bacteria, and that Peter is attempting to cover up the discovery with threats against his security and his family, Thomas is forced to decide between standing by his ideals as a physician, or enveloping himself in willful ignorance.

Cole has an easy, eager charisma about him. It's part of what makes Stockmann's character the Messianic figure in his small town. His truth-seeking is admirable, and recalls Bernie Sanders' inspiring messages, but Stockmann is more interesting than his real-life counterpart. For one thing, he is scaled down to fit the stuffy intimacy of a small town (scenic designer Harry Feiner has built a subdued, wooden interior for the Stockmanns’ home, while costumer Barbara A. Bell elegantly signifies the passage of time with the wear and tear of the characters' clothes). Cole does not scale down his part, however: with his sonorous voice and endearingly bitter humor, he renders Stockmann larger than life.

From left: xxxx as Akslasken, Cole as Thomas Stockmann, and Nilaja Sun as Mrs. Stockmann.

His brother the mayor, played by Jones, is a blustering, up-for-the-challenge sparring partner. Fastidious and severe, Peter raises the hackles of more than one “reformist,” namely Hovstad and Billing. Their personalities knot up nicely toward the latter half of the play, as does Arielle Goldman's Petra, the Stockmanns' daughter, a teacher. John Keating, who plays a businessman called Aslasken, is a particular revelation in his studied impression of a fickle everyman.

There is an unending tension between the authority and the reformist in Brooks's conception of Ibsen's play. Within this tension, however, is a complexity difficult to explore on stage: the variable nature of truth. Do we seek truth from our authority figures—policemen, politicians, councils of elders—or do we seek it from the reformers—journalists, leaders of movements, and the common man? When the disgraced Roman politician-turned-farmer Cincinnatus was called to serve as Rome's dictator during a period of social strife, he became a paragon of civic virtue when he resigned immediately after peace was restored, and picked up the plow again.

In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen quietly acknowledges that our most beloved leaders are impossible contradictions: they are both the authority and the reformist, both the leader and the common man. Harrower elegantly exposes Ibsen's sadder, but less delusional reality—that while we seek the truth of the reformer (Thomas Stockmann), we give way to fear and accept the truth of the authority (Peter Stockmann). Let's hope our current political theater, with all its muddy truths and maniacal lust for power, takes a note out of Brooks' precise, magnetic production of Ibsen's timely play.

Performances of Public Enemy run through Nov. 6 at the Pearl Theatre (555 West 42nd St.). Tickets are $69-$99 and may be purchased by calling (212) 563-9261 or visiting pearltheatre.org.

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Vive ‘Le Dingdong’!

Director Hal Brooks unbridles five actors in The Dingdong, Mark Shanahan’s updated adaptation of Georges Feydeau’s 1896 farce Le Dindon. He propels it even further into the absurd by having those five actors bring to charming, boisterous and nuanced life 12 distinct characters.

The farce begins with Lucy Vatelin (Rachel Botchan), a married woman, attempting to slam the door on an overzealous suitor, Pontegnac (Bradford Cover). With Pontegnac’s arm and leg precariously lodged in the door, she is leaning against it, insisting he go away. “Everyone this side of the Seine heard you shout that you wanted to make passionate love to me!” she complains loudly, while screaming for her husband to save her. Unfortunately, Pontegnac is an old friend of her husband (Chris Mixon). 

Lucy has another suitor, Redillon (Brad Heberlee), who calls on her as well. With Vatelin out of the room taking a business call, Redillon and Pontegnac square off. Meanwhile, Mme. Pontegnac (Kelley Curran), suspecting her husband's infidelity, has followed him to the Vatelins’ home, where Lucy, worn down, makes a pact with Pontegnac, agreeing to have an affair with him if her husband should ever be unfaithful. Pontegnac knows full well he hasn't been.

The first-act characters include Fabiola (also Curran) as Vatelin’s Italian lover, who has traveled to Paris (with her Hungarian husband) to find him and profess her love. The second act introduces even more, at The Hotel Ultimus, with doors slamming, a 17-year-old bellboy and a Parisian policeman (both played by Heberlee), luggage mix-ups, a French chambermaid, an old, practically deaf woman (Botchan) with uncontrollable flatulence, and a New Yorker named Mandy (Curran).

Two multifaceted performers capture the pure essence of farce in their multiple roles. Kelley Curran bursts onto the stage as the epitome of a sophisticated, bold Frenchwoman and shortly after reappears as an Italian lover with all the bravado of an early Sophia Loren. Act II opens with Curran as Mandy and, only to outdo herself, she closes the play as a fetching French maid. Wigs, costumes and shoes take an actor only so far in a role—Curran is each character.

Heberlee is also a delight, energetically embodying three characters—the flamboyant, sex-driven Redillon (who is a doppelgänger to Feydeau), the bellboy and the policeman. It is his role as Redillon in Act I, at one moment writhing on the floor and professing his love to Lucy, and in the next attempting to explain to Vatelin why he is on the floor (he is cleaning, after all) that is the most endearing. During the standoff with Pontegnac the actors pose like two preening cocks in the farmyard, arguing who is the greater lothario (“I would never discuss matters of intimacy with another man’s wife”).

Cover appears to have the most difficulty playing multiple characters, relying on his best Tim Conway impression, at times shuffling or gasping before each line. Act I finds him and Botchan in awkward and unnecessary movements with odd pacing.

Designing a 1938 French townhouse, Sandra Goldmark uses striking black and white striped walls, a sunrise-yellow floor, and tone-on-tone fabric chaises for Act I. Lighting designer Mike Inwood adds a wonderful layer of sunlight streaming through a lattice window. In Act II, at the Hotel Ultimus, there are bright green and yellow panels with a matching headboard and bedspread. A brief set change and the scene becomes the Honeymoon Suite of the Hotel Rue Cromartin, where the stagehands, decked out à la Marcel Marceau, replace the fabric with bright red floral patterns, as well as a painting of the Eiffel Tower.

Working in concert with the set designer, costumer Amy Clark mixes and matches contrasting colors and patterns. Her attention to detail with smart wigs and colorful hats, down to gartered socks and Redillon’s man-about-town look, is like pure icing on a Pimm’s Cup cupcake from Prohibition Bakery.

George Feydeau is one of the most famous writers of bedroom farce, and Mark Shanahan’s adaptation is a remarkable homage. Witty banter, along with exaggerated physicality, are at the heart of The Dingdong. Even the most pursed lip might be cajoled to laugh out loud.

Performances run through May 15 at the Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd St., (212) 563-9261. Tickets are $65 regular, $85 premium ($40 members, $20 student rush, $20 Thursday rush). Visit pearltheatre.org for specific dates and times.

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