Ann Dowd’s Fearless Battle Through a Choose-Your-Own Enemy of the People
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The Ann Dowd’s Fearless Battle Through a Choose-Your-Own Enemy of the People
To release data that could save lives, or to keep it quiet so as not to cause panic? To listen to science or play the political game? If the purpose of theater is to hold up a mirror up nature, Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People—running until Aug. 8 in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory—might as well be hung on your bathroom door.
Icke’s boisterous game is both a vehicle for Emmy winner Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale), who plays all the characters, and society’s terrible decisions, many of which are amply showcased over 90 minutes. Dowd’s main role is Dr. Joan Stockman, a scientist who discovers her city’s cherished appeal—a natural hot spring turned tourist destination—is tainted. As cases of lead poisoning spread like wildfire among the townspeople and visitors alike, Joan finds herself in a battle of wits with her brother Peter, who happens to be the mayor. Should the welfare of the community come before the welfare of the citizens? Well, that’s up to us to decide.
And decide that we do. Icke’s play is a “choose-your-own-adventure” story, in which spectators, seated at conference tables tricked with computers, vote on the plot’s direction. It starts off easy enough: Do Joan and her family have coffee or tea for breakfast? Coffee easily won the night I saw it. But then the tougher questions reared their ugly heads: Should Joan’s reports be made public, or should they go to the board for approval first? And who is the real enemy? dr. Joan or Mayor Peter?
Visions of the Flint water crisis, and of course the ongoing Covid pandemic, dance in our heads over the course of Enemy of the People, and even after a year of watching politics beat science to a bloody pulp, the voting results, binary like they are, were uncomfortably close to our reality, almost to the point of laughing. In a world of fictional corruption, one that we could have molded into a just society that takes care of itself, the perverse side of human nature still won the day.
That’s not entirely surprising, since that dark side makes for crackling drama, which the audience, devoid of live performance as they were, knows well. So does Icke, a clever writer who bulldozes the classics. While his script is a little too romantic (a drawback of many solo experiences), and the material a little too expansive to be conveyed by an intrepid performer, I had a great time watching the moral gray areas play out. in the hands of the wealthy Upper East Siders who cheered for the supermarket workers every night until they could flee to Sag Harbor. I can almost guarantee that the pearl wrenches among us will find this a very unpleasant experience.
Unfortunately, the deck is so stacked against Dowd that Enemy of the People is a losing battle for her from start to finish. She’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, but from the moment she shows up, there’s an air of defeat in her eyes. You can see it in her face when she looks at the not so strategically placed teleprompters, and in her voice when she instructs us to put on headphones so we can really hear her. Asking her to not only memorize two versions of the play, but also fill a theater’s airplane hangar, would be an invincible war for everyone.
Stage designer Hildegard Bechtler confines Dowd to a catwalk in the middle of the theater, where only one side of the audience can see her at a time (two billboard-sized screens on either side of the auditorium for everyone’s viewing dismay). Sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman forces her to compete with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-esque suspense music. As both playwright and director, Icke and his team have done a tremendous disservice to this excellent character actor, who does have some deeply moving and terribly exciting moments.
After all, if you have to look at a screen to see the show and put on headphones to hear it, you might as well have stayed home. And we can all agree on that.
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