Eh, What’s Up Doc?: Ibsen’s Catawampus of Righteous Rage and Indignation Updated



Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s current production of An Enemy of the People is not to be confused with CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s book The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America or the new Trump biography by Jonathan Swift entitled Enema of the People [LOL!]. Rather, WGTB’s two-acter is a version of iconoclastic Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 comedy drama, freely adapted by the Topanga amphitheater’s Artistic Director Ellen Geer.


Co-directed by Geer and Melora Marshall, this Enemy is re-set in the presumably fictitious town of South Fork, South Carolina in 1980. By moving the time and location of Ibsen’s work from 19th century southern Norway a century later to the Southern USA during the presidential race between Democrat Pres. Jimmy Carter and GOP candidate Ronald Ray-gun, this WGTB iteration opens Enemy up to an exploration of issues of greater relevancy for today’s theatergoers.


Given that Pres. Trump, with his dictatorial impulses, frequently derides the press as “the enemy of the people” one would think that the title character of this 2019 Ibsen-ian interpretation would refer to a journalist. In fact, this is not the case, and the play’s protagonist, in the WGTB minted rendition, Tom Stockman (Christopher W. Jones), is the same as it was in Ibsen’s original (although the Scandinavian scribe actually called him “Thomas Stockmann”, with two “n”s). In both versions Tom is a doctor and medical officer at a spa that features baths renowned for their supposedly healing waters. So Tom is this saga’s eponymous “people’s enemy” - not a reporter.


Max Lawrence portrays Horatio (who is named Hovstad in the original), editor of The Peoples' Messenger, which in the WGTB iteration is a Black-oriented local paper. Interestingly, Horatio reveals himself to have mixed motives, conflicts of interest and to not be a hero in the Edward R. Murrow mold, speaking truth to power. Alas, Horatio may not publish “fake news” per se, but he does deliberately print one-sided reporting, so if anything, he’s not a rebuttal to Trump’s arguments  against the media, but arguably confirmation of his allegations. Indeed, at one point in Act II Tom’s daughter Patience (Constance Jewell Lopez) denounces Horatio for not playing a journalist’s proper role as a truth teller.


The Enemy currently on the boards at WGTB opens with former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (played opening night by Connor Clark Pascale, who alternates with Matthew Pardue) addressing a “white power” rally and the “N” word is repeatedly used during this two-hour-plus show with one intermission. It seemed to me that this provocative preamble is meant to take place sometime before the 1980 presidential race when the rest of the onstage action takes place. The incendiary curtain lifter sets the tone for the play, although some may scratch their heads, cover their ears and wonder what it has to do with the rest of the show.


Enemy’s second scene occurs in the Stockmans’ comfortable household at South Fork, S.C. It is a home Tom unwittingly puts into harm’s way when he receives confirmation of an unspeakable truth he has suspected and looked into. The facts are not only contrary to the self-interest of South Fork’s elite, but will also adversely impact the majority of townsfolk (at least in the short term). Initially, the doctor naively expects that not only will the good citizens of South Fork accept and proactively act upon the unpleasant truth he is revealing, but will be grateful to and actually thank him for exposing the sorry state of affairs.


Watching all this unfold on the boards of the gloriously out-of-doors theater beneath the starry, starry night I had a sense of impending doom. Poor Tom! Doesn’t he have an inkling what he’s getting himself (and his family) into? Sure enough, contrary to Tom’s dewy-eyed great expectations, without disclosing details and at the risk of committing the heinous crime of plot spoiling, I’ll just say that in stark contrast to the good doctor’s innocent assumptions, all hell breaks loose instead. Tom soon finds himself standing almost completely alone, as friends, family and expected allies turn against him, amidst more backstabbing and vilification than a Game of Thrones episode. As that renowned pink philosopher Snagglepuss exclaimed at Jellystone Park when he was shocked: “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” 


The play illustrates what I’ve long said: In America, you have freedom of speech - until the precise moment when you use your First Amendment right to advocate for an unpopular cause in public. Then you find out how free you really are in the land of the “free.”


Leading the pack of hyenas against Tom is his own older sister, Mildred (who, in Ibsen’s original, is his older brother named “Peter”), the town’s mayor. Mildred is depicted by Katherine Griffith, whose playbill credits note that she has performed at comedy clubs, and to tell you the truth she reminded me of Maureen Stapleton as Dick Van Dyke’s hilarious, meddlesome Mama Mae Peterson in the 1963 musical movie Bye Bye Birdie. Indeed, while Enemy deals with serious subjects and thoughtful themes, there are lighthearted moments. Tom becomes so self righteous that this latter day would-be Jeremiah the prophet could be interpreted as, to some extent, a figure of fun Ibsen was lampooning. (And this show taught me a new word: “catawampus.”) 


To be sure, Jones, a WGTB veteran, is as tragic as he is comic. The play is well-acted, with Gerald C. Rivers going hog wild, adding pig farmer to an impressive resume that ranges from Dr. King to Captain Ahab (co-starring as the peg-legged obsessive whaler in another offering of WGTB’s current repertory season, Moby Dick - Rehearsed). As Tom’s wife Katherine, Earnestine Phillips convincingly depicts a wife torn between the ethical rectitude of her Caucasian husband who defied Southern-fried racism to dare marry an African American on the one hand, and the comfort if not outright survival of her four children on the other. Katherine must choose between the righteousness of Tom’s cause and her family’s well-being - to be sure, a Sophie’s choice of a moral dilemma, which Phillips conveys movingly.


The co-directors not only draw finely etched renderings from their thespians but, as is a hallmark of plays performed at this amphitheater under the stars, make exciting use of Topanga’s sylvan glade, the hills and woods surrounding its rustic boards. Geer and Marshall direct a race riot onstage with a mise-en-scène that’s exciting, just like WGTB’s battles in Shakespearean epics such as Julius Caesar and the sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat Nantucket sleigh ride in Moby Dick - Rehearsed.


As for Enemy’s message, of the individual versus the masses, groupthink and mob rule: Tom’s speechifying is a bit too longwinded in Act II and the overzealous moralizing of his jeremiads is a tad too much. Listen, in America people are lied to almost from the moment they’re born. For example, the average American is bombarded with far more TV commercials (which all propagandize for capitalism) than Germans were subjected to by Nazi propaganda during Hitler’s Reich. So calling people things like “a basket of deplorables” or the kind of slights Tom hurls at the townspeople in his righteous rage will not win people over - it will turn most of them against you, even if your argument is right and you are indeed telling the truth. Wrapping one’s self in morality and insulting misguided, misinformed people fed disinformation by the powers that be (that’s the real “fake news”!) is much easier than trying to organize ordinary men and women, convincing them to act in their own true self interests. To be a true FRIEND of the people - now that’s genuinely hard work!     


I often look askance at adaptations executed for mainly commercial reasons. I’ve scratched my noggin pondering why did Orpheus and Eurydice’s romance have to take place in the 21st century, sans togas? What’s gained by this? Why was Richard Wright’s great attorney character purged from not only a recent stage production, but from HBO’s 2019 screen version, too? And so on - poetic license (or licentiousness), perpetrated without the consent of dead bards, no longer alive to defend their work and copyright.


But sometimes these updated versions work, the prime example being West Side Story’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet amidst the warring gangs of 20th century Manhattan. And so it is with Geer’s transmogrification of Ibsen’s 1882 story, which - by landing it in 1980’s Southern USA - allows American audiences to mull over pressing contemporary matters: Racism, the role of the press, nonconformity and more. (Some years back WGTB did something similar by resetting Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 1970s’ Virginia. And race relations is frequently explored in WGTB productions, noted for their nontraditional casting.)


That’s all, townsfolks! 


An Enemy of the People is being performed in repertory through Sept. 28 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: