Henrik Ibsen

An Inconvenient Truth

Review of An Enemy of the People, Yale Repertory Theatre

Thanks to Trump’s designation of the press as “the enemy of the people,” the question of what exactly that phrase means is in the air again. In the playbill for the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, directed by James Bundy from a new translation by Paul Walsh, we are apprised of the many times in history that some party or policy or organization has aimed that epithet at an antagonist. In the play, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers) has the phrase hurled at him due to his discovery of information that would undermine his town’s comfortable status quo with an inconvenient truth.

Dr. Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons), and their children (James Jisoo Maroney, Atticus Burrello, Stephanie Machado) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Dr. Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons), and their children (James Jisoo Maroney, Atticus Burrello, Stephanie Machado) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Tanneries upstream have polluted the waters of the town’s famed spa, making its once healthful springs a source of slow poisoning. The environmental threat of that truth and the way in which the powers that be dismiss the dangers in favor of keeping the economy running makes the plot device analogous to everything from chemical contamination to radiation to fracking to global warming to the shark in Jaws. The town’s mayor, Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), who would rather table the findings, is the brother of Dr. Stockmann, a fact that adds an amusing element of sibling rivalry to the power struggle.

Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers)

Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers)

As played by Reg Rogers and Enrico Colantoni the brothers are vastly entertaining, and that’s a very strong component of this production. While maintaining a grasp of the political and polemical aspects of the material, Bundy never loses sight of the play’s comedy. Ibsen wrote a human story, not a political tract. The playwright himself was uncertain whether to call the play a comedy or a drama, and that’s because he is willing to make fun of all sides—both conservative and liberal and moderate—for the sake of dramatic effect. Ibsen tends to assert the heroic stance of the loner, in the end. Along the way, he pokes fun at the press, special interests, the arrogance of intellectuals and elitists, small-town Schadenfreude, cowardice, hypocrisy, bullies, and sexism.

In Walsh’s updating, the range of targets doesn’t feel scattershot. The tone is very different from the production of David Harrower’s adaptation, Public Enemy, directed by Hal Brooks, that played in New York last year in the months leading up to the election. That show had a hectoring quality, making us both fear the democratic process—election of a know-nothing by a bunch of know-nothings, which is how Dr. Stockmann sees majority rule—and want to take part in it to rectify its abuses. Ibsen’s play, in Walsh and Bundy’s hands, is nimbler, letting phrases like “the free liberal press” sound naïve in the mouths of its champions, but also a worrisome target of the demagoguery that becomes the key note of public commentary and civil leadership as sides get drawn. By putting the dispute “in the family,” Ibsen indicates how power can often seem a personal asset of the few. These two men, in all their self-serving egotism, have the fate of the entire town in their hands.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Rogers’ performance, funny, breathy, agitated, conceited, goes a long way to making this play a fascinating portrait of a certain type: The well-intentioned man of science, convinced of an intellectual superiority that others should recognize by giving full assent to his views. It’s not that he’s overbearing, exactly, but his manner indicates a restless mind barely held in check by social niceties. He is beloved of his daughter Petra (played with conviction by Stephanie Machado) who aspires to more than the wifely duty her mother excels at.

Dr. Stockmann’s sweeping personality is met by Colantoni’s terse and heavy tones as the mayor. He not only wants to keep the spa in business, but the fact that the current problems stem from decisions he made when the spa was created means that the new information would spell his political death. Colantoni gives Peter Stockmann a judiciousness that seems genuine even if it is a cover to dodge his worst fears and nightmares. No one can really “win”—Thomas’ victory will be a hard blow for the town, though ultimately for the future good; Peter’s victory will be very costly, in the long run, but will give the people what they—in their guarded ignorance—want.

Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Everyone has an iron in the fire, not least the publisher Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), a lively moderate who ends up sticking with the mayor, for political reasons. And that means the pressmen Hovstad (Bobby Roman) and Billing (Ben Anderson), initially critical of the mayor, fall into line too. In Act Two, Ibsen makes the about-faces for the sake of personal interest almost dizzying, but no more so than the kinds of bald-faced retractions of stated—or tweeted—convictions we’re all too familiar with these days. The cast does a good job showing us men who aren’t malicious but who pride themselves on knowing which way the wind is blowing.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Catherine Stockmann (Joey Parsons)

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Catherine Stockmann (Joey Parsons)

As Thomas Stockmann’s put-upon wife, Joey Parsons shines as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann. She has a gracious manner in the presence of company and shows, in a nicely mimed moment, a shrewd sense of her husband’s tendency to grandstand. The fact that she risks everything for her husband’s convictions, which are strengthened by his deep need to prove his brother wrong, makes her “stand-by-your-man” loyalty compelling rather than meek. The family seated onstage during Act Two’s town meeting creates a visual support to Dr. Stockmann’s view of himself as the only right-thinking individual. We sense their ostracization at once.

During that scene, toxic sludge makes its way down the high walls of Emona Stoykova’s modernistic and movable set. It’s a nice visual correlative of the spreading poison in the water and of the poisonous political farce being played out in the town. The set, open to the wings, works against the kind of drawing room set more typical for Ibsen, making the drama feel more deliberately theatrical, complete with an outdated-looking backdrop to signal a Norwegian landscape.

In their willingness to be steered by those in power without demanding accountability, the townsfolk in Ibsen’s play are a cautionary example. Ibsen, abetted by Paul Walsh’s breezy translation and James Bundy’s lighter-than-usual touch in directing, makes us consider a situation in which “we the people” are our own worst enemies.

front: Mayor Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni); middle: pressmen Billing (Ben Anderson), Hovstad (Bobby Roman), rear: townspeople: Greg Webster, Mariah Sage, Arbender Robinson, Mark Sage Hamilton)

front: Mayor Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni); middle: pressmen Billing (Ben Anderson), Hovstad (Bobby Roman), rear: townspeople: Greg Webster, Mariah Sage, Arbender Robinson, Mark Sage Hamilton)



An Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh
Directed by James Bundy

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Choreographer: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Production Dramaturg: Chad Kinsman; Technical Director: Becca Terpenning; Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle

Cast: Ben Anderson, Mike Boland, Atticus Burrello, Enrico Colantoni, Jarlath Conroy, Mark Sage Hamilton, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Bill Kux, Stephanie Machado, James Jisoo Maroney, Joey Parsons, Arbender Robinson, Reg Rogers, Bobby Roman, Mariah Sage, Setareki Wainiqolo, Greg Webster

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 6-28, 2017

Unhappy Hedda

The third Yale School of Drama thesis show opens tonight, directed by Katherine McGerr. Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen, is a masterpiece, a character study that is one of theater’s most fascinating roles. As the playbill by the show’s dramaturg, Jennifer Schmidt, suggests, the play, unlike some of Ibsen’s other famous plays, does not take aim at social problems so as to give meaning to the play’s action. In Hedda Gabler, the problem lies with Hedda herself; her manipulation of others and her ultimate fate would seem to set a moral, though audiences are left to determine what that might be. Is she tragic or does she get what she deserves, is she mean-spirited or high-spirited, is she idealistic or nihilistic?

For McGerr, Hedda Gabler is a play that is meant to shock its audience. “There’s nothing old about it, the play is alive today,” McGerr says, and hopes the audience will be “shocked, but understand it and be shocked by what it means.” One question the production faced was how to remove the play from its period setting—the 1890s—without “updating it” to the present. The show’s striking design (Adrian Martinez Frausto), with the audience literally looking through the glass walls of the home of Jørgen and Hedda Tesman, is somewhat modernist, without being of a definite era. Costumes (Soule Golden) as well are modern, with some of the elegance of art deco, while furnishings show a mixture of modern shapes together with the older mode of life that the Tesmans are trying to move up from. The house is one of the finest in the neighborhood and is the place where Jørgen (Daniel Reece) expects to begin his career as a professor with a young wife and possibly a family—particularly if his doting Aunt Julia (Elia Monte-Brown) has her way.

McGerr says that, in working with her cast, the question they have been asking is “who is [Hedda]?” They see both her cruelty and her frailty. McGerr thinks of her heroine as “ahead of her time and smarter than the others around her, but also frustrated.” It’s that frustration that fuels many of her actions, we might say, and Hedda’s complexity has always fascinated audiences. What interests McGerr and her company is the very question of what draws others to Hedda, what makes them love and trust her. We—the audience—might understand the attraction if we admit we love her too. Much may rely upon whether or not we identify with her.

As Hedda, Ashton Heyl is lively and accommodating, with finely chiseled features and blonde hair bound tightly to her head. Her costumes accentuate the graceful lines of her figure and she indeed looks very much the prize catch of the area that Tesman—and others—take her for. “Others” include Commissioner Brack (Mitchell Winter), a close friend of the Tesmans—Jørgen is literally in his debt—who wants to get closer. The sparring flirtation between Brack and Hedda is one of the show’s strengths, allowing us to see how Hedda handles herself when confronted with another’s machinations. Both seem wary of each other’s strengths while looking for an opening that will be useful. Winter’s Brack seems to be a man forever testing the water, just waiting til it gets comfy.

Reece’s Tesman is so absorbed in his hopes for his career and his elation at winning Hedda, he’s unaware of Brack’s overtures to Hedda, and rather welcomes his friend’s attentions to his wife. Tesman is the comic figure in the cast, to a large extent, and perhaps some of our sympathy for Hedda may come from our growing sense of the obtuseness of the man she married. Even so, Reece’s Tesman is likeable and aims to please. We might expect Hedda to wrap him around her finger, but not so. We’re looking at a domestic unit where the man—especially with the moral and even the financial support of his aunt—sets the tone and Hedda is expected to content herself in the home he has gone into considerable debt to buy for her.

The more dire threat to that contentment, for Tesman, is the sudden reappearance in town of the brilliant but dissolute scholar Eilert Lövborg (Mamoudou Athie). Suddenly Tesman again faces professional competition and, what’s more, we learn that Lövborg had some scenes with Hedda when she was single and living with her father. There’s a back-story there and Lövborg’s recent “reclamation” by the sweetly supportive Thea Elvsted (Tiffany Mack), an earlier flame of Tesman’s, sets up a possible game of mixed couples to offset Brack’s desired threesome. Ibsen was nothing if not canny about the possibilities of romantic affairs in small towns—your basic soap opera learned well from his tendency to hint at desires below the surface that may flare into reality at any moment. The cast is rounded out by Ariana Venturi as long-suffering servant Berte—suffering not only because she’s the only servant the Tesmans can afford, but because her long ears pick up some of the dirt on her mistress. This minor role is amplified a bit to give hints of the kind of “upstairs/downstairs” view in which a servant stands in as witness.

As Lövborg, Athie gives us a vivid sense of instability, but also of the kind of passion that threatens at any moment to overrun the pacing of Hedda’s cat-and-mouse game. Athie’s loose cannon in the midst of a world of bland formalities adds an odd force to the play that other characters seem unable to cope with. As Thea, Mack is lovely and very sensible, perhaps too sympathetic. Hedda’s maliciousness toward her can seem motiveless if we like Thea too much.

Hedda, we see, toys with the possibility of romance but doesn’t truly desire it, so that much of her motivation comes from her attitude toward Thea, who, unhappily married in a manner worse than Hedda, has been Lövborg’s salvation, as well as placing her chaste romantic hopes in him. Backing the now ascendant Lövborg, Thea may actually “win,” you see . . . .

Plot-wise, the over-riding interest is in who will get the upper-hand on whom, and with what consequence. Props—such as Hedda’s old piano, her father’s pistols, Lövborg’s new book and, even more, his brilliant unpublished manuscript, dictated to Thea, written with her in weeks of comradely intimacy—serve well as tangible reference points in a world where dialogue can be a duel, a seduction, and almost always the imposition of one will upon another. Paul Walsh’s translation, in shedding some of the Old World gentility, seems at times to lose some of the finer nuances of motivation as well.

Ibsen was a great playwright. Hedda Gabler is one of his greatest plays. McGerr and company have created a deliciously dark modern comedy in which Heyl’s Hedda—steely, desperate, winning, manipulative, and fine—pits her wits against obtuseness. To what end?


Hedda Gabler By Henrik Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh Directed by Katherine McGerr

Scenic Designer: Adrian Martinez Frausto; Costume Designer: Soule Golden; Lighting Designer: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Composer and Sound Designer: Steven Brush; Production Dramaturg: Jennifer Schmidt; Stage Manager: Shannon L. Gaughf

Yale School of Drama University Theater February 1-7, 2014

Hello Dolly!

s House  LWT  067 The Long Wharf Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House managed a surprising feat: it made the play more entertaining without significantly altering it.  If you're a purist who wants to see Ibsen played straight, it does that; but if you think that a play like ADH, with its winsome wifey who gets into some hot water due to an "innocent" forgery, then gets out of it only to slam the door on her happy-ever-after home, is a bit dated and could use some kind of make-over, well, this show does that too.

And that's what I found surprising: first, that one could perch Ibsen on the terrain of a sitcom or a soap; second, that I found myself thinking, well, isn't ADH simply a more revered soap?  After all, the plot of the story is pure soap opera, and there's nothing in the dialogue that aims beyond the play's basic premise, which is something like: happiness is only skin deep.  Scratch it, and it bleeds.  So why not give us an A Doll's House (1879) that resonates in a world of McMansions where -- as is only too timely -- a bit of financial chicanery might bring the whole cloud castle down on a bank manager's ears.

Gordon Edelstein, who did the adaptation and directed, deserves great credit for mining the comic potential in the material.  It mainly seemed to be a matter of emphasis.  The dialogue, a bit modernized, was close to any version of the play we might already be familiar with, but this production included laughs that might be in Ibsen's script but which a less enterprising director might overlook.  There was a breeziness to it that kept it from taking itself too seriously, a breeziness derived from the giddy fun of looking into our neighbors' glass house.

What's important, for a modern production, is that we not be laughing at Nora, the little bluebird, squirrel, chipmunk, as though she were simply in over her airhead and deserving of a little domestic contretemps for our amusement.  Ana Reeder made the most of making Nora likeable, cannily dim rather than actually so.  She managed the protean shifts that are necessary -- the play makes us see -- to be the "perfect wife": temptress, adoring partner, household manager, confidante to friends both male and female, defender of the threatened nest, even sacrificial victim (the latter a melodramatic touch that can't help seeming a bit 19th century).  When, in the end, she does what she's got to do, the shifts from comically desperate to happily saved to proudly determined occur a bit too fast for realism, but Reeder "kept it real," as they say, helped by the change to casual jeans and sweatshirt after the hiked skirt, hose and low neckline of her belle of the ball costume as a dancing peasant girl.  The "street clothes" underscored that her role in the household had been a command performance all along, and it was time for a curtain call.

In the supporting cast, special mention goes to Tim Hopper as Dr. Peter Rank, the ailing best friend of Nora's husband Torvald who carries a torch for her himself.  Their scenes had enough heat to make up for the rather lukewarm affections of Torvald, and Hopper's doomed departure, in cowboy costume with a big cigar going, deserved an ovation.  As Torvald, Adam Trese kept a part that could easily be a caricature sympathetic, even up to his panicked outburst at Nora for exposing him to his enemies.  I liked him best at the end as he babbled about how he forgave her, sitting in his big papa chair, and his attempts to defeat her logic resonate so well, even 21st century males might easily hear Ibsen laughing at us.

As the villain in the piece, Mark Nelson's Nils Krogstad had a kind of shaky petulance that worked well enough in confronting Nora with her wrongdoings, and in his pleas to be reinstated at the bank, but made it hard to see what her friend Christine Linde (Linda Powell) could see in him.  He seemed more eager to end it all rather than able to blackmail a boss's wife or rekindle an old romance.

Michael Yeargan's set was a wonderfully detailed doll's house, its fakery part of its appeal, with plenty of floorspace for Ibsen's and Edelstein's playthings to move about and grope toward some satisfactory vision of the future.

And what of the kids?  It may be much easier for today's male to accept without much soul-searching Nora's claim that she needs to educate herself and find a place in the world; but does today's woman find it any easier to pursue that goal at the sacrifice of her ties to her children than women would in Ibsen's day?  "You've come a long way, baby," since Ibsen's Nora first walked out -- but, Edelstein's production seems to ask, "how far would you go?"

s House  LWT  177

LONG WHARF THEATRE, Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Ray Cullom, Managing Director


A DOLL'S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen, Adapted and Directed by Gordon Edelstein, Set Design by Michael Yeargan

through May 23, 2010

A Masterful "Master Builder"

The Master Builder at The Yale Rep Henrik Ibsen’s dramas are classics of the theater, and his best-known plays lay bare the stultifying social mores of the late 19th century: A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gabler.  The later Ibsen, while still based in the naturalism of his main period, moves toward drama that is more symbolic, perhaps even allegorical -- dramas where the astute student of theater might see possibilities opening up for a new age of stagecraft.

The Yale Repertory’s production of The Master Builder is gloriously evocative of the fresh face of contemporary theater.  If the name of Ibsen brings to mind over-stuffed drawing-rooms with imperious stage-directions where neurasthentic types pine with Norwegian yearning, banish those thoughts at once.  The set design by Timothy Brown is wide open, expressionistic -- the characters stand on a stage that seems to be the side of a house climbing into the heavens upstage -- and allows the actors to make full use of space as they ricochet off one another in an urgent ballet of feeling.

Given the theme of the rapturous climb to great heights -- both literal and figurative -- in the play, the set alerts us at once to the possibility for soaring above the quotidian that master builder Halvard Solness finds in Hilda Wangel, a young visitor from his past.  Swept off her feet as a girl of thirteen when the mighty master builder climbed to the top of a high tower he designed to plant a victory wreath, she also insists he kissed her ‘many times’ when he found her alone later, and claimed he would come carry her off ‘like a troll’ to a kingdom in ten years’ time.  The ten years are up, and Hilda wants her kingdom.

The Halvard Hilda finds is a driven man, but one who is also desperate -- worried about ‘the young’ who will make him step aside (particularly in the form of Ragnar Brovnik, an apprentice architect who Halvard ‘keeps down’ by not giving him any projects of his own), and preying upon youth by beguiling Brovnik’s fiancée, Kaia, so that she will remain in Halvard’s employ, thus giving Ragnar reason to stay.  It’s an untenable situation that is beginning to fray and Halvard knows it, not least because Ragnar’s father, once Halvard’s superior, is near death and wants to see his son amount to something on his own before he dies.

Into this dense situation, Hilda arrives with the force of visionary destiny, suddenly inspiring Halvard with her muse-like presence and youthful attachment to his former grand figure, but also sharing in the confidences of past tragedy and loss in the Solness marriage, as well as learning of Halvard’s great burden of guilt.  Can the master builder put all this aside and rise again to the glory he finds in her eyes?

As Halvard, David Chandler is as mercurial as the part demands -- at times, forthright and earnest, at times cold, unyielding and almost diabolical.  He is tender about his wife, in her absence, but uncomfortable in her presence.  He is direct with the doctor who tries to sound him out on his relation to Kaia, but is also arrogantly superstitious about his ability to control others through his own mind.  Coiled with the exasperation of the man of talent beset by the demands of others, Mr. Chandler flings his expressive body all about the stage with the passion that Hilda brings to the surface.  We see a man struggling, in almost every movement, to determine if his desires can overcome his misgivings.

And as Hilda, Susan Heyward is a thrilling delight.  Girlish, willful, and remarkably quick on the uptake, Hilda, as written, could easily seem more sprite than person, a creature of Halvard’s Id suddenly incarnated in the flesh.  As incorporated in Ms. Heyward, Hilda is nearly ecstatic with the force of her effect on her revered master builder, and plays with him through an intuitive grasp of what they might mean for each other.  And though, as Ibsen not doubt intended, Hilda’s actual psychology remains a mystery, Ms. Heyward gives us every reason to believe in the spell that Halvard falls under in her presence -- a spell predicated on her unshakeable conviction of his greatness.

In the supporting cast, Felicity Jones’ Aline Solness is regal in a gorgeous black gown, displaying, with her mere presence, the sad memories that cling to the marriage, but also giving the dialogue a comic edge as the long-suffering wife all-too-knowing about her husband’s need for young, female devotees.  And Slate Holmgren, as Ragnar, does much with a part that’s easy to overlook, particularly in his scene late in the play with Hilda, where, though she mocks him as a mere upstart, we can see in his self-possession possibly another master builder in the making.

Credit for this version’s success rests most securely, no doubt, on director Evan Yionoulis.  In the “Talk Back” with the audience after the Saturday matinee performance, several in the cast spoke of her ability to ‘calibrate’ their performances to the right nuance -- and much of that nuance itself depends on the translation by Paul Walsh.  The dialogue seems unforced and direct -- even when Solness and Hilda extemporize on Vikings and trolls (figures of baleful power Ibsen felt himself at times to be in league with) -- and sounds modern without straying into contemporary locutions.

And what does the play say to us now, more than a century and a decade after it was written?  Ibsen’s strong presentations -- of a man of power abusing that power, of a man of talent seeking some new inspiration, of a man of years trying to revitalize himself, of a marriage that persists without ever freeing itself of its past, where tragedy, rather than ending the couple, made them what they are, and of a young woman’s seeming power to see the future and be the future -- never become dated.  So, what do you see when the still striving, but slipping, figure climbs that tower in the end -- hubris? inspiration? despair? need?  A struggle against time, against mediocrity, against God?  Or a deluded effort to assert something whose day is done?  Then ask yourself: what does Hilda see?

The Master Builder, by Henrik Ibsen. Translated by PAUL WALSH. Directed by EVAN YIONOULIS. Yale Repertory Theatre: September 18-October 10, 2009. Set design by Timothy Brown, costume design by Katherine Akiko Day, lighting design by Paul Whitaker, with sound design and original music by Scott L. Nielsen.  Photograph© T Charles Erickson