A Fracking Shame

Shotgun Players has doubled down on its commitment to new plays lately. Last year’s 20th-anniversary season was entirely made up of commissioned world premieres, and after an impressively solid production of Tom Stoppard’s Voyage this spring, Shotgun unveils another commission. The Great Divide is a modern take on Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People, updated to focus on current hot-button environmental issues. The playwright is Adam Chanzit, whose play Down to This closed in a Sleepwalkers Theatre production in San Francisco the same weekend this show opened in Berkeley.

Luisa Frasconi, Heather Robison, Samuel Berston, Michaela Greeley, Scott McCloud and Scott Phillips in The Great Divide. Photo by Pak Han.

With its particular focus on water pollution, An Enemy of the People is a play written at the tail end of the 19th century that has a lot to say to the 21st. A doctor discovers that the therapeutic baths that have become his hometown’s livelihood are in fact cesspools contaminated by the local tannery and in need of a complete overhaul. Expecting to be congratulated for alerting the town to this health danger, he finds easy allies among the rabble-rousing newspaper editor and the moderation-obsessed head of the homeowners’ association.  But the doctor’s brother, the mayor, knows this news would be devastating to his authority and that it would cost too much to fix the problem, so he portrays his brother as a dangerous crackpot, and public opinion shifts against the doctor before he even gets a chance to detail his findings. The town’s well-intentioned would-be savior is branded, well, an enemy of the people.

Chanzit takes this basic set-up and applies it to the mineral extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing, called “fracking,” in which pressurized fluids are pumped into the ground to release subterranean deposits of natural gas. This increasingly common practice has been accompanied by a significant rise in health problems among nearby residents that’s believed to be connected to air pollution and ground water contamination, though the industry has been so largely exempt from environmental regulations that it’s been hard to get reliable information.

On the plus side, the story translates well enough, with the town’s reliance on tourist income from the baths now changed to gas-company jobs in a depressed area of Colorado, as well as sweet business deals for the mayor and other select residents while others get screwed over. The characters of the doctor and his wife have been swapped, so now the crusading doctor is Katherine Stockmann, the mayor’s sister, who’s been off doing humanitarian work in various Latin American countries for years, with her husband and kids in tow. Now she’s back in her hometown and figuring out what her next cause will be.

However, while the idea of the update seems sound enough, the execution is not so hot. Chanzit’s play feels like a delivery device for information about the dangers of fracking first and an Ibsen adaptation second, and it’s disappointing on both levels.

As a fracking play, The Great Divide’s problem is that it feels like just a play about fracking. The characters are thinly drawn to illustrate different aspects of the issue, and the dialogue is stiff with exposition. There’s a lot of good information crammed into two hours, but the human element is lacking. It feels less like a play than a TV movie-of-the-week.

As a riff on Ibsen, it’s more problematic. The Great Divide isn’t billed as an adaptation but rather “inspired by” An Enemy of the People, but at least half the characters are transplanted and translated from Ibsen’s play. But Enemy is social satire; the characters are ridiculous exaggerations of all-too-familiar types, and the reversals of fortune are as sudden and as inevitable as in a farce. The stakes are high and for the good doctor it’s more like a tragedy (complete with enough hubris to satisfy the lit majors), but it plays as a particularly grim comedy. Chanzit’s version, on the other hand, is deadly serious, even humorless, and all the knee-jerk behavior that we don’t really question the psychological motivation of when the characters are over-the-top to begin with seems ludicrous when you try to tone the characters down, dragging the drama down into melodrama that feels too self-important to realize that’s what it is.

A good example of the problem of this approach is the character of Michael Hovstad. In Ibsen’s play, the newspaper editor Hovstad is champing at the bit for any excuse to bring down the powers-that-be, and his reflexive zeal is easy to turn around against a new target. Chanzit’s Hovstad, on the other hand, is a conscientious investigative reporter zealous about uncovering the truth. But as soon as it seems like there are actually two sides to the story, as soon as it becomes something complicated and multifaceted rather than a straightforward hit piece, he becomes disheartened and doesn’t want to publish it at all. It’s like he has no idea what a journalist actually does. Ibsen’s Hovstad is a buffoon, like most of the characters in the play, so his fickle allegiance seems perfectly in character. In the course of making Hovstad less overtly ridiculous, Chanzit makes him seem less realistic and more insulting to the profession.

There are some strong players among the large cast of fourteen, but they’re hampered by flat dialogue that keeps their scenes from really coming to life. Scott Phillips is always grinning as Peter, the folksy mayor, whether he’s having a heart-to-heart over beers with his sister before the trouble starts, or whether he’s frantically putting spin on her accusations as they fly at a town meeting (easily the play’s most dynamic scene). Heather Robison is earnest and fretful as Dr. Stockmann (folks just call her Kat), but the character still seems vague and aimless even once she’s found her cause. Ryan Tasker’s Holvad is dour and ultra-focused, and Luisa Frasconi is all starry-eyed idealism as Kat’s daughter, Petra, who’s dating him.

Joe Estlack has an outsize presence as a crude and loudmouthed gas-company worker who loves his job and won’t hear anything against it.  Sabrina De Mio portrays a fellow worker who’s having health problems but is afraid of showing weakness as the only woman in her crew, and Hugo E. Carbajal is a quiet and thoughtful worker with growing doubts. Sarita Ocon is harried and possibly troubled as the company rep beset by complaints, as well as the romantic attentions of the glad-handing mayor. Carl Holvick-Thomas is a cocky local landowner, and Paul Loomis a desperate and pissed-off one. Rebecca Pingree is a weary local resident of failing health, a defensive EPA agent, and a clucking NIMBY on the town council.

Tom, Kat’s husband, seemingly has little to do but housework and angling for a little of Kat’s attention; Edward McCloud makes him gently sympathetic, but ultimately there’s no real place for him, and Tom knows it. Samuel Berston is precocious and traumatized as their son Morten. One character who it seems puzzling to have around at all is Kat and Peter’s mother, played by crabby zest by Michaela Greeley, who abruptly becomes important at the very end but is scarcely written into the play before that.

Mina Morita’s staging adds some intriguing artistic touches that help keep the show from feeling too prosaic. Martin Flynn’s set of cratelike plain wood platforms surrounded by piping proves versatile, and the scene changes are well integrated into the action by having hard-hat workers plant pipes in the floor that become table legs. Costumer Maggi Yule makes sure everyone’s well equipped with blue jeans and plaid shirts. Colin Trevor’s sound design builds atmosphere with a haunting mixture of bluesy music and industrial noises.

It’s a handsome enough production, but it doesn’t amount to much besides drawing attention to a complicated and pressing environmental issue. But on that level, I’d have to say Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland is more informative and more emotionally involving (that is to say, infuriating) than this play—and though it seems a fracking shame to say so, more entertaining as well.

The Great Divide
Shotgun Players
Through June 24
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #50 of 2012, attended May 27.

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