Dallas — In Trump’s America, as has been frequently pointed out, novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have frightening relevance. In theater, we’ve seen Robert Schenkkan respond to 45 with Building the Wall, the New York Shakespeare Festival do a Julius Caesar with overt Trump correlations, and a stage adaptation of 1984 on Broadway. As for classic plays, among the works being revived more frequently since DJT started winning primaries: Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
The latter—about a scientist warning his town of contaminated water, but spurned by special interests and the public—has gotten quite the workout, even several years leading up to Trump’s inauguration. Josefina López set it in a Mexican border town; there was a site-specific production in Flint, Michigan; Robert Falls adapted it for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre; and there’s a long-rumored adaptation coming from Branden-Jacob Jenkins.
The fact that it’s a hot property wasn’t lost on Second Thought Theatre, which commissioned Blake Hackler—author of last year’s The Necessities—to adapt it for the current season. The result is Enemies/People, having a hyper-meta, button-jamming, unapologetically didactic production at STT, directed by Hackler’s Southern Methodist University colleague Kara-Lynn Vaeni.
The major works of Norwegian playwright Ibsen, the father of modern drama, are quietly devastating in any time or place; they're certainly speaking to North Texas theatermakers now. In October, WaterTower Theatre opens its season with A Doll’s House, directed and adapted by Joanie Schultz; and in November Undermain Theatre takes on The Lady from the Sea, directed by Hackler.
An Enemy of the People, however, is not quiet. Enemies/People most certainly isn't. It screams. It provokes. It antagonizes. It maddens. It leaves its main character, Tom (Alex Organ)—and the audience—enraged and exhausted that there’s no solution in sight; perhaps no solution at all.
In Ibsen’s original, Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the aforementioned scientist, soon to release a study about the polluted water in a town that relies on natural springs for tourist dollars. His wife, Katherine, stands by him. His brother, Peter, the town mayor, leads the charge to keep Thomas’ findings quiet, or, barring that, undermine them. Even Hovstad, the editor of the liberal newspaper, can’t stay on Tom Stockmann’s side.
Hackler’s contemporary adaptation sets the central action in the far West Texas town of Hammon, with the unwieldy slogan “A Healthy Heartful Haven.” Here, Tom (Organ) is an urban planner, who has a “science guy” who has tested the water, contaminated from fracking (nevermind earthquakes). His wife Kat (Allison Pistorius), a Yale grad, teaches at a community college. In Ibsen, they have adult children; here, a newborn. Brother Peter (Gregory Lush) is the mayor, who will have his science guys—funded by big oil—release their study. Michael (Jovane Caamaño), the Hovstad character, runs a blog called the Daily Progress; and Billing, the assistant editor of the newspaper in Ibsen, becomes Billie (Sasha Maya Ada), Michael's intern. Ibsen’s Aslaksen, a printer who chairs the explosive town hall in the penultimate act of the play, is now Mercedes (Christie Vela), president of the town’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The exposition in the first act of Enemies/People sets up the town hall that opens the second act, and it’s here where Hackler’s title—the slash is significant—makes sense.
I saw Robert Falls’ adaptation at the Goodman this year, and while it was faithful to the original, he used language recognizable in our current situation, such as “deplorables” and “fake news.” That version, like Ibsen’s, made it clear that as good-intentioned as the annoyingly smug Tom Stockmann can be, he isn’t going to convince a population whose self-interests obstruct truth and justice. He is indeed an enemy of the people. They’re stupid, he knows, but they also outnumber him.
Hackler’s version, which is freely adapted, also uses “deplorables” and “fake news” (remember when Trump Tweeted that the media is an enemy of the people?) and even more contemporary buzz words and phrases: Liberal elite. Un-American. Drain the swamp. Alternative facts. Gaslighting. Social media assassination. Reclaiming my time. Billie, a student of social justice studies, wears a T-shirt that displays “Woke” in the style of the Coke logo—which is sort of like wearing a "rebel" T-shirt, a very un-rebel thing to do. (Costumes are by Melissa Panzarello).
But this adaptation is more indicting than its source material. It blows up at an uninformed public, and like other productions of An Enemy of the People have immersively done, uses the theatergoing audience as the town hall constituents. Here, the actors interact with the audience about jobs and a number of hot-button topics, including—whew boy—gun control.
“What happens when the majority is made up of ignorant people?” Tom asks at one point.
What’s worse than being uninformed? The uninformed demanding they’re right because they believe the news sources, fake or not, that side with their beliefs. Even worse? Circular, name-calling debates that won’t change anyone’s mind.
The cast here has been smartly curated by Vaeni, with Organ triumphant as an arrogant, defiant, frustrated idealist trying to do the right thing. He’s heartbreaking near the end as he has a breakdown of sorts, repeating the word “facts” like it’s one of those common words that suddenly sounds weird so you keep saying it with different inflections and tones. It hits home because anyone who has ventured into a comments section, or engaged in political arguments on Facebook, knows that that kind of discourse is not only soul-crushing; it's futile.
The stage directions state that the set should not have walls (ahem), and scenic designer Jocelyn Girigorie employs hanging, sliding panels that the cast moves for different locations.
Hackler’s language is populated with funny lines like “it’s not a revolution without office space,” and his expository voiceover lets us know that this will be a remix of the original. I initially side-eyed this oh-so-clever, metatheatrical set-up, as some actors change the representation dynamic early in the piece. The meta framing device—even the stage is bordered by copies of Ibsen's script—is now so common that it can feel like an overly facile way to approach classic text.
However, the ending—after Tom’s house has been destroyed by the enemies/people—brings home Hackler’s concept for this particularly relevant masterwork of world drama. Without spoiling it, let’s just say that it’s a genius construct to convey that this is a story that happens over and over. The cycle will never stop.
It also tells us that as long as there are humans making theater, they’ll find a way to retell Ibsen’s eternally relevant narrative through their own lens.