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Guthrie's condensed 'An Enemy of the People' is too watered down

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

In an interview for the Guthrie Theater's An Enemy of the People program, playwright Brad Birch is asked whether when writing, he thinks in terms of "a binge-worthy Netflix series." Birch rightly demurs.

The signal attribute of today's best TV is absorbing long-form storytelling, with the expansive format allowing deep explorations of characters and plotlines. With his adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play, Birch has taken the opposite tack, condensing and abbreviating.

At about 90 minutes without intermission, Birch's play now runs less than half the length of some An Enemy of the People productions. His first take at the material debuted in Wales in 2016, and the staging now on the McGuire Proscenium Stage represents a further iteration. The result somehow manages to make a 136-year-old classic into the biggest dramaturgical mess of the Guthrie's season.

The play is still set in Norway, but now it's 2018 and the Scandinavian interior design is so polished, it's aggressive. Tom (Billy Carter) is a scientist who's left his academic position to head up the Springs, a new resort that relies on piping locally sourced mineral water into baths for tourists. Tom's brother Peter (Ricardo Chavira) is the mayor, who's staked the town's future on the Springs' success. No conflict? No interest!

Early on, Tom reveals that a reliable analysis has found the Springs water to be tainted, presumably as the result of cut-rate pipes installed by the project's budget-minded financial backers. The replacement cost would be a tough pill to swallow, and the investors aren't biting: Peter tells Tom to keep quiet about the poison, trusting the spa's board to handle the situation discreetly.

Peter eventually produces an alternative "study" purporting to show that the water's safe, and the parallels to our current political situation couldn't be much more explicit if a Fox News chyron was running along the footlights. The most successful scene in director Lyndsey Turner's production is its most bluntly topical: the opening night audience broke into repeated peals of applause as Carter passionately argued that to neglect scientific truth is to bring civilization itself to a precipice.

On the surface, this An Enemy of the People unfolds as a taut drama of conscience. Merle Hensel's rotating set changes constantly throughout the production: while our attention is (theoretically) riveted to an exchange on one section of the turntable, elements are silently swapped in the darkness on the far side. This visual metaphor evokes competing conceptions of reality more effectively than anything in the overly ambitious script.

While the spinning set and Broken Chord's original score keep the pace superficially thrumming along, the underlying story is stumbling. Birch extracts several tantalizing threads, but they fail to cohere. For example: as Petra, the college-age daughter of Tom and his wife Kate (Sarah Agnew), Christian Bardin has a powerful scene where she describes how her parents can't accept her for who she is. That could be tied back to the larger themes of truth and self-deception, but instead it's plowed under by the need for Petra to serve as an awkwardly balloon-toting symbol of innocence.

More fundamentally, Birch fails to establish the stakes. If the water poisoning is actually as dangerous as Tom says it is, how long does Peter really think he can keep that hushed up? Why is Kate going on about the lack of trust in her marriage when Rick Steves could start shitting blood at any minute? A news editor (J.C. Cutler) and reporter (Mo Perry) try to prove the investors' culpability, but doesn't the toxic bathwater merit a headline either way?

Under artistic director Joseph Haj, the Guthrie has demonstrated a sure instinct for finding vintage scripts that resonate eerily with the current moment, plays such as Trouble in Mind and Watch on the Rhine. In this case, though, the source material has been wrenched so violently across the centuries that it's fallen apart along the way.