The Next Theatre Company

Writer-director Dexter Bullard clearly had a good idea when he decided to build a play on the basic story of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, shifting the setting from 19th-century Norway to late-20th-century Chicago. However, for some reason his heart seems to have resisted following where his brain tried to lead.

Thus we have Infusoria, a play that starts out being about how the powers that be conspire to silence a good man–Dr. Thomas Stockmann, whose discovery of toxic waste on a building site threatens a multimillion-dollar health spa (the Crystal Rapids Life Leisure Center). However, the play becomes so muddled with silly digressions, pointless scenes, extraneous details, and conflicting messages that by the end it’s hard to tell what it’s really about.

Whole sections could have been slashed from this play with no damage to the story. Why, for example, do we have to sit through a whole scene in which a couple of construction workers (played rather well by Gregg Mierow and Gordon Gillespie) do nothing but try to gross each other out with increasingly graphic stories about accidents? The fact that they are working on the site where Stockmann claims to have discovered “superconcentrated mutagens and carcinogens” is a poor excuse for such an aimless, time-consuming scene. And how can we worry about whether these workers will die of cancer 25 or 30 years from now when we don’t care about them now?

Likewise, the scenes in which Stockmann visits his wife in the hospital would never be missed. We learn precious little about either character in these scenes–not even why she is in the hospital or how long she has been there. Nor does Stockmann bother to tell his wife about the controversy he has become enmeshed in. Instead, he tells her a long, digressive, and not very interesting story about a group of gods (most of whom seem to be named after various rocks and minerals) who first create the world and then set up a kingdom where they become embroiled in the petty politics of court life. How this relates to the larger drama, I couldn’t say. But the telling of this story does make it clear that the Stockmanns have a miserable relationship–the ever-passive Mrs. Stockmann acts like a child, while her husband drones on and on, not caring whether she understands his tedious tale.

Bullard’s sloppy writing is symptomatic of a deeper problem with his project–his apparent ignorance of and ambivalence about the way the world works. How else to explain the complete lack of politicians in a play set in contemporary Chicago? Where is the alderman whose ward may lose a major employer if Crystal Rapids fails to open? Where is the mayor whose war chest may depend on big corporate contributions? Where is the governor hoping for an image-enhancing sound bite on local TV?

Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is quite explicit about what the power elite in the play’s tiny Norwegian resort town thinks of Stockmann’s discovery of bacteria in the town baths. Bullard’s Infusoria is so blissfully free of politicians and concerned neighborhood organizations that it might as well have been set in Oz.

Still, Bullard seems to have enough understanding of the inner workings of a corporation to have created Peter Veritas, a cartoonish, superslick corporate spokesman and sometime villain (played with an exquisite Reaganesque mixture of affability and insincerity by Eric William Ferguson). Veritas makes a great foil for the woolly-headed Stockmann. Maybe too great a foil. Veritas is such a wonderful character that he threatens to steal the show from Stockmann whenever the two clash–much the way Satan upstages Jesus in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This has an unfortunate destabilizing effect on Bullard’s play.

That does not seem to have been Bullard’s plan. Rather it seems the accidental result of the chaos Bullard allows the play to fall into. Clearly it doesn’t help that the only other environmentalist in the story, Gunter, president of the Friends of the Globe, is a publicity-hungry kook. Nor does it help that we end up learning both the flaws and strengths of Stockmann but only the strengths of Veritas.

It isn’t Stephen Colbert’s fault that his fine, intelligent warts-and-all portrayal of Stockmann only accentuates these flaws. Nor is it his fault that in the final confrontation between the two men Stockmann must deliver his dry recitation of the facts via a small TV that’s set in the upper left-hand corner of the proscenium, while Veritas succeeds in distracting us by chattering pleasantly and then introducing an energetic spandex-clad dancer, who performs a frenetic aerobics routine. Naturally, Stockmann’s message is completely lost.

This scene is clearly modeled on the fourth act of An Enemy of the People, in which Stockmann is silenced first by the parliamentary games of the mayor and then by the jeers of a crowd of people who think he’s out to ruin the town. Ibsen, however, wrote one more act, in which he tied up the loose ends of the story and drove home his message: “The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”

Bullard ends his play abruptly, without bothering to tie up any of the many loose ends in his play. We don’t know how Stockmann (who was once a partner in the Crystal Rapids project) will live now that he’s declared war on Veritas’s far stronger, far richer corporation. Nor do we know what will happen to the hospital-bound Mrs. Stockmann once her husband’s insurance benefits run out. Nor do we know for sure that Crystal Rapids will be built (though we suspect it will be). All we get is a lot of what we’ve gotten throughout the play–gimmicky noise and nonsense.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.