It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment in An Enemy of the People when Thomas Stockman crosses the line between standing up for principle and falling prey to obsession, between serving the people and separating himself from them, between defending democracy and extolling oligarchic elitism. Still, the genius of Ibsen’s 1882 play is that we admire the hero even as he increasingly gives us the creeps.
The turn comes somewhere in the fourth act, when the people of Thomas’s town rise against him for threatening their economic security by revealing that contaminants in the water supply are poisoning visitors to the local baths. Having cast himself as the people’s savior, Thomas is branded by the mob as their enemy. And in the crosshairs of their rancor, rather than using scientific evidence and moral suasion to convince them to do the right thing, he lashes out against the public for their stupidity. Crazed with self-righteousness, he makes a new, higher principle of isolation.
In an otherwise competent if uninspiring production directed by Thomas Caruso, this pivotal scene is a mess. Caruso has moved the setting from a room in a house to the outdoors and staged it in the dark. Townsfolk rush about to create the sense of a mob losing control, but all the scrambling saps focus from Thomas’s speech. What’s worse, the only illumination comes from lanterns that the actors sometimes point at Thomas as he orates away. It’s frequently impossible to see or to hear him. Caruso seems to sense that the action of disintegration is unclear, for he ends the scene with a lengthy flashing of strobe lights and a deafening soundtrack of crashes and dying electric whirs, as if to compensate.
This staging is particularly unfair to Tom Bloom, who makes an appealing, perfectly manic Thomas. Bloom’s energy starts out high and keeps building as Thomas is fueled by defeat. But Caruso never allows the sinister undercurrent of Thomas’s ardor to surface. On the other hand, Ken Kliban is deliciously menacing as Thomas’s brother, Peter Stockman, the mayor of the town and the chairman of the baths. He carries smugness like the staff of his office. Dave Konig also stands out as the weasely businessman Aslaksen; his voice floats hilariously up to his nose as he stammers out his appeals to moderation.
The rest of the cast seems made-for-TV, even afraid of a live audience sitting so close and in the round. Nonetheless, the use of the space— a fancy old living room with heavy velvet drapes and curlicued moldings— invigorates the production. Taking Ibsen out of the distant proscenium and pitching us into the lap of the action lets us confront Thomas Stockman like the townsfolk he repudiates. Trouble is, Caruso doesn’t grant Thomas the texture that would allow us to consider when— or whether— to repudiate him.
If Thomas turns obsessive as he experiences an erosion of social support, the hero of the near-contemporaneous Flaubert novella, A Simple Heart, turns obsessive as she endures personal loss. In their dance-theater adaptation of what Flaubert called “an account of an obscure life,” choreographer Annie-B Parson and director Paul Lazar create a cold, compelling world of emotional disintegration.
The story follows a servant, Félicité, as all the people with whom she has been connected leave or die. As her hearing diminishes, and her grief wells up, writes Flaubert, “the little circle of her ideas grew narrower and narrower, and the pealing of bells and the lowing of cattle went out of her life.” She pours all her affection onto a pet parrot, and when it, too, dies, she comes to make a god of it.
Wisely, Parson and Lazar don’t attempt a literal translation of the strange and perfect prose into narrative dance; indeed, they offer a severely streamlined version of the plot. Though they introduce an unwarranted cutesiness from time to time, they re-create Flaubert’s tone of tender detachment through a series of provocative images. Félicité’s mistress, Mme. Aubaine (Tymberly Canale), wears a huge hoop skirt. All the props and characters that frequent their lives, even Félicité herself, emerge from beneath its folds. In one lovely sequence Mme. Aubaine dances a duet with her lover. Her body snakes around his, following the lead of her lips, affixed in a kiss to his hand.
The production’s richest choice is to use two performers to portray Félicité (Stacy Dawson and Molly Hickok). While the doubling of the protagonist— both wear identical burlap aprons and long brown braids— may suggest the way servants often occupy both private and professional personae, the device is more existential than social, paradoxically emphasizing Félicité’s solitude. Choreographically, the doubling allows for gorgeous, enigmatic actions: The dancers move at times in unison, at times with parallel motions, and at times in opposition, but they always remain connected. One dancer’s hands function as the other’s feet, groping along the floor beneath her skirt; stooping like beasts of burden, they scoot along as a single entity, scrubbing in their wake. When Félicité dies at the end, the dancers separate for the first time. And it’s heartbreaking.