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Glenda Frank

Don't Drink the Water

"Enemy of the People"
Written by Henrik Ibsen. Adapted by Seth Barrish and K. Lorrel Manning.
Produced by the Barrow Group at 312 W. 36 St., 3rd floor, NYC.
Feb. 6 - March 8, 2010. Fri. - Mon. 8 PM. Sun. 3 PM.
Seats: $25.Tickets at 212-868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.
By Glenda Frank

Every once in a while, a small theatre company -- working on a shoestring budget and with a cast of mixed talent -- produces a gem, and the few theatre-goers they can seat are amazed. But that is rare. The three or four times I've seen that, the productions have had no afterlife and the theatre companies disbanded.

The Barrow Group Theatre (TBG) is an exception. In its 23 years, it has won a 1995 Drama Desk award for off-off Broadway excellence and been the birthplace of the prize-winning "A Steady Rain" (on Broadway with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman) and "The Temperamentals" (which is currently housed at New World Stages 5, 340 West 50th St.) "The Timekeepers," a 2007 production by Dan Clancy about life in a concentration camp, was quiet, intense and memorable.

"Enemy of the People," their current production, is about ensuring a clean water supply. The lively adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 problem play was written by Seth Barrish, the co-founder and artistic director of TBG, and K. Lorrel Manning, the director. Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the protagonist, is an idealist, a physician who developed a welcome economic incentive project. Discovering the healing quality of the local water, he designed a spa, which the whole town invested in. After visitors develop new ailments, the doctor runs further tests, which uncover contaminants from the local tannery, run by his father-in-law. Stockmann demands that the results be published, the tannery run-off rerouted, and the baths closed until the water can be purified.

But Peter Stockmann, the mayor and his brother, insists that the finding are questionable and convinces the town that Dr. Stockmann is an alarmist. The mayor is motivated by a recession and the estimate of how much revamping the spa will cost on top of their current debt. At a local meeting, the townspeople vote down any interruption of service and label the distraught scientist an enemy of the people. The economy! What about the people? the doctor asks. To which the mayor responds, Is there a difference?

Manning and Barrish reduce the 11 speaking characters to 8 and have them double as the townspeople. Long speeches are cut and the actors step out of character in order to narrate events that were excised from the script -- or to change the set. (There is no curtain or black out.) The result is very effective. Scenes are shortened to highlight confrontations. We are invited in to dinner with the Stockmanns, an argument at the newspaper, and a negotiation between Dr. Stockmann and the tannery owner (Herbert Rubens) . The action moves quickly. As in Greek theatre, we know the outcome but the drama is more in the mayor's rationalizations, that weave a strait jacket around the hero. We watch intelligent, concerned citizens -- even the mayor's enemies -- change sides.

Dr. Stockmann ( Larry Mitchell) emerges as an almost comical character (which Ibsen intended). The spa is his big break. After 10 years, the family finally has a stove, a new home, and enough money. Mrs. Stockmann (Katherine Neuman) enjoys cooking and feeding her friends, yet none of these factors enter into the doctor's decision. He talks with his mouth full because he has something to say, he barges into arguments because he is sure he is right, and he sees no validity in the town's concern for its investment. His obsession affronts everyone's common sense and need for due deliberation -- yet ironically he is absolutely right. "Enemy of the People " has rarely had the urgency it has today. Unlike Ibsen's audiences, we can reference Love Canal, the danger to the Hudson River, and a recent alert in the New York Times (Dec. 2009) that 20% of the water supply in the United States does not meet safety standards.

TBG is adept at turning production handicaps into advantages. The set changes and direct audience addresses provide interesting variety to the scenes. There are just enough specific details to convey the doctor's concerns, chromium poisoning and renal failure, but the mayor's oversized big hat, which hangs on a hook even when he is not in the scene, reminds us that there are forces beyond medicine in this debate. The costumes look hurriedly designed but they are all black and somewhat of the period, so that the effect is fine -- Brechtian, in fact. The town meeting where the characters' chairs face the chairman, as do the audience's, feels like the staging for Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty," where the audience has a role in the decision. A great deal was done with very little in a 40 seat house.

There have been interesting stagings of the play. Arthur Miller's adaptation appeared on Broadway in 1950. There were several film versions, one with the legendary Steve McQueen (1978), and the opening scenes of the film "Jaws" seem influenced by the play. Ibsen wrote "Enemy of the People" in response to audience criticism of "Ghosts," in which the danger is also invisible and deadly -- untreated syphilis. "Ghosts" and "Enemy of the People" were attacks on the Victorian notions of morality, democracy, and community at the expense of the truth. Unfortunately, the play seems very contemporary.

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