Review: Red Tape’s "Enemy of the People"

Enemy of the People
Red Tape Theatre

by Barry Eitel

In our age of Brita filters, it can be easy to take the quality of our water for granted. We trust that what comes out of our taps is safe, but that sometimes isn’t so, as recent problems uncovered in Crestwood, Illinois prove.

This situation, where authorities found that citizens were using water from a long-contaminated well, links Red Tape Theatre’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, directed by James Palmer, to extremely current events. Ensemble member Robert Oakes moved his version of Ibsen’s classic story of individual vs. the mob from a coastal Norwegian hamlet to a modern American town. Ibsen’s basic plot works very well in a contemporary context; supposedly, Jaws is also based on the play, but with a huge shark lurking in the water rather than pollutants. Red Tape’s production, on the other hand, is plagued by disconnected performances aggravated by Oates’ clunky dialogue.

enemyofpeople2Similar to Ibsen’s Victorian-era original, this Enemy of the People focuses on the problems caused by a new spa-resort built in the rural community of Cherokee. Dr. Tammy Stockman (Courtney Bennett), one of the original supporters of the spa, finds that the pipes could be tainting the community’s water. She quickly finds that her expensive solution is not what those in charge want to hear. And as she pushes to make her report public, she begins to realize that she might be alone in her struggle to renovate the source of millions of tourism dollars for the community.

Oates’ adaptation has a certain hillbilly charm—characters discuss the merits of tofu dogs and Snuggies (probably the debut of the jacket/blanket hybrid in dramatic literature). The small town feel is furthered by costume designers Jennifer Tillery and Alycia Barohn, who dress the characters in plenty of flannel, trucker hats, and fishing-related t-shirts. The simple Americana of the production is probably its most redeeming aspect, making the characters and story easy to relate to.

Tammy and Peter However, Stockman’s journey from rebellious whistleblower to town outcast is hard to navigate. Whenever the character becomes passionate, Bennett pushes a little too hard and Stockman becomes over-the-top. It’s a shame, because Bennett can be very charismatic when she’s chilling in a Snuggie with her friends. Oates’ language doesn’t help, either, sometimes throwing out deep, metaphysical arguments about the nature of truth that just don’t gel right with the rest of the dialogue. Switching Stockman’s gender (Ibsen cast the character as a man) is an interesting choice, but the text is clumsy in exploring the gender dynamic. The relationship between Tammy and her brother/mayor of Cherokee, Peter Stockman (Robert Lynch), is also underdeveloped and misses a true sibling connection between the two.

Peter and Greg The biggest problem with the production, though, is that often the actors don’t seem to be really listening to each other. The worst offender is Lynch, who appears to have a very rehearsed and fixed performance. Lynch isn’t alone, though; April Pletcher Taylor as Connie, the abrasive leader of the Small Business Association, and Nicholas Combs as Greg Hovstad, editor of a liberal news website, have similar issues. Not everyone on stage is out-of-touch; Errol McLendon’s portrayal of the truck-driving Dan Horster is simple yet captivating and Vic May is moving as Tammy’s husband Cliff.

The production benefits from Palmer’s interesting environmental staging that cycles the audience through a few locations, including making them participants in a high-stakes town meeting. Palmer is aided by lighting designer Kyle Land’s huge projections which create some interesting environments. Weak spots in Oates’ text can’t be avoided, though, and the play becomes self-indulgent and borderline preachy. By attempting to instill high ideals to the audience, the production becomes ungrounded.

Rating: «½

Related articles:Red Tape’s blog: Meet the cast of “Enemy”

One Response

  1. […] The last (and admittedly, only) show I saw by them, last season’s Enemy of the People (our review ★½), was pretty weak. That said, I was completely blown away. Directed by Artistic Director […]

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