By Jodi Heckel
Theatre students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign created a new adaptation of the classic Henrik Ibsen play “An Enemy of the People.” Their retelling of the story, “Varslaren (The Whistleblower),” opens Feb. 11 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Even though the original story was written 140 years ago, its themes of public trust and political conflict are relevant today.
“It looks at how media and politics and science kind of tango with each other, in some ways making alliances, in some ways breaking those alliances for their own gain. It’s very much a look at who gets to say what the truth is, how do we get truth out to people and what do they listen to,” said Genesee Spridco, the devising director for “Varslaren,” a theatre department lecturer on movement in acting and an Illinois alumna.
“An Enemy of the People,” written by the Norwegian playwright in 1882, tells the story of a doctor who discovers that the baths being built to turn his small village into a spa destination are filled with polluted water. He exposes the secret to try to keep people safe, but his brother – who also is the town’s mayor – and others try to suppress the story and disparage the doctor.
Spridco works in devised theater – using improvisation and writing with the cast to adapt a play and characters to reflect their perspectives on the story’s themes.
“It introduced me to new ways of working,” said Alex George, a junior acting student. “It was really exciting to see how it took shape. I really liked being in a room where you were free to have all these ideas and put your spin on it.
“It’s a story about a lot of egos getting in the way of what’s good for the people. You have a town that is on the brink of a public health crisis and chooses to deny it because it would hurt them economically. You can look at the COVID-19 pandemic and see decisions made that were not being made in the name of public health. That’s very present in the piece,” George said.
Spridco and the students created a script for a two-hour show, with two-thirds of it using Ibsen’s words from the original play and a third of the show new material from the students. In their adaptation, two of the main characters – the doctor and the newspaper editor – are women.
The adapted story is still set in 1882. Hannah Haverkamp, a graduate student in costume design, designed period costumes for three of the main characters – the doctor, the newspaper editor and the doctor’s daughter.
The doctor wears a straightlaced dress with vertical lines and touches of both menswear and femininity.
“A lot of the character analysis was based on what a female doctor in the 1880s would be up against and how she would have to represent herself to the townspeople to be taken seriously. I tried to show a character with the sobriety of the medical profession, and the dynamism she has that allows her to stand up to everybody in this town telling her she’s wrong,” Haverkamp said.
The doctor’s daughter wears a delicate pale green dress, representing her youth and hope.
The dress for the newspaper editor is the jewel of the costumes, Haverkamp said. She saw the character as self-serving and flashy, and she created a dress in bright blue and yellow hues inspired by the colors of the poison dart frog. The dress has layers of pleats that move out of the way as the actor strides across the stage, and the back of her jacket has an asymmetrical slash.
“She’s constantly on the move, constantly looking for a new angle. I really wanted that to be reflected in her costume,” Haverkamp said.
Although Ibsen’s play was titled “Enemy of the People,” it included very little in terms of the voices of the people, Spridco said. “One of the things we wanted to do was highlight the fact that people in the town have perspectives, too,” she said.
They created new characters to do so, including a young man whose pride in helping build the baths prevents him from acknowledging that there may be something wrong with them, and a young woman who lost her father after he got sick from the baths and died. Her character resents the doctor for not saving her father; the young woman is the final resident of the town to turn against the doctor.
“Varslaren (The Whistleblower)” will be presented Feb. 11-12 and Feb. 15-19. Tickets are available online only at krannertcenter.com. Those attending the performances must provide proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, and face coverings must be worn throughout the performance.
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