The buttons are to be pressed at each table several times during the 100-minute show at the Park Avenue Armory, for we’re not mere spectators in director Robert Icke’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” We’re voters, too, informed that our collective choices will affect the course of the evening. Should, for instance, the report on the tourist town’s tainted water system be released immediately to the public or held back for more PR massaging?
It’s an illuminating exercise in both self-reflection and groupthink — and an example of how, as audiences emerge from personal hibernation, theater is seeking novel kinds of visceral engagement. You can find other intriguing attempts all over town: at the Public Theater, for instance, in the 600 Highwaymen’s affecting exploration of first impressions, “A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter.” And with visual panache (and a need for some additional script work): “Seven Deadly Sins,” seven playlets viewed in storefront windows, on a short night jaunt through Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
These variegated formats point to a further awakening by playwrights and directors to the notion that the toolboxes of performance have to be broken open, their contents spilled everywhere. No doubt we’re all eager to see work again in conventional spaces, and that return — barring more covid-19 outbreaks — will occur at an accelerating pace in the coming months. But the nearly year and a half away from theaters may be invigorating a new consideration of what in-person theater means, and how it makes contact with each of us.
“Enemy of the People” is staged in the cavernous Armory, which has been in the vanguard in its invitation to rethink the dimensions of spectatorship. The sleek layout by set and costume designer Hildegard Bechtler positions tables outfitted with digital tablets, the voting buttons and globe lamps atop a massive map of the streets of Weston Springs, the fictional town in which Icke has set the story. On a platform and ramps that snake through the space, Dowd strides like a captain on the bridge. A great actress of impressive range and effortless authority, she takes command of the evening in a most exhilarating way. Imagine the Stage Manager in “Our Town” assigned the additional task of inhabiting every character in Grover’s Corners.
Icke has reworked Ibsen’s oracular 1882 play, about a whistleblower in a Scandinavian town dependent for economic survival on a spa whose waters he knows to be contaminated. It’s now a town in 2021 in what is suggested to be a country very much like ours — one in which the economic and social resentments break out after the cranky local scientist, Joan Stockman, insists the spa be shut down, its lead pipes replaced at prohibitive cost. The story’s flash points conjure multiple tragedies: the lead in the water of Flint, Mich.; the burgeoning distrust of both politics and science.
Dowd’s embodiment of the scientist, a brave, outspoken woman who has nevertheless lost all her compassion for those who lack her education and experience, is another of her striking portrayals of deeply paradoxical characters. The audience is in essence given the opportunity to punish Joan, or validate her abrasive vehemence. (A diatribe she delivers at a town meeting, deriding the ignorance of her fellow citizens, is instantly classic.) On jumbo screens at each end of the hall, we watch our votes being tabulated — arrived at collectively, one per table. This rewardingly democratic night, in this time of endless crazy, feels like a palliative.
I’d vote, too, for the even more stunningly audience-driven “A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter.” A project by 600 Highwaymen’s Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone that started over telephones, this encounter takes place at a table with a plexiglass partition on a bare stage, with you and another theatergoer you’ve never met. It’s kind of a nonromantic speed date, the only prop a stack of index cards arranged between you. Each card has an instruction — a question to ask, a facial or hand gesture to execute, a noise to let out.
Such an exercise could be invasive or cringe-inducing. But the cards guide participants so gently through the sessions lasting about 45 minutes, and the communication that they provoke can be so sweet and surprising that it all comes across as a joyful resetting of one’s bearings for being out in the world. If you’re on social media, you know how caustic and unfeeling the exchanges can be. This “Encounter” is a reminder that the faceless have faces. Recognizing the dignity and the whimsy and some of the history of one other human may help, if you try to imagine the same qualities in everyone.
The trendily spruced-up Meatpacking District, notorious once upon a time as a carnal marketplace, beckons the theater world with director Moisés Kaufman’s thematically resonant if erratic production of “Seven Deadly Sins.” A version of the show — seven 10-minute sketches, each by a different playwright, occasioned by the sins of Gluttony, Pride, Lust, Wrath, Envy, Sloth and Greed, was first produced by Miami New Drama. Kaufman has restaged it in seven store windows, with audiences seated on the streets, with headphones.
The concept is wickedly inspired — especially when the play is Bess Wohl’s “Lust,” the stream-of-consciousness musings of an exotic dancer (the marvelous Donna Carnow). The plays vary wildly in quality, and do not link up in a compelling way, notwithstanding the arresting sets by David Rockwell and, even more exuberantly, the costumes by Dede Ayite. But the highlight might be the short welcoming ceremony performed by Shuga Cain, a drag artist who would be a splendid Emcee for a “Cabaret” of the 2020s.
Enemy of the People, adapted and directed by Robert Icke after the play by Henrik Ibsen. Projections, Tal Yarden; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound and original music, Mikaal Sulaiman. About 100 minutes. Tickets start at $55. Through Aug. 8 at Park Avenue Armory. armoryonpark.org.
A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter, by 600 Highwaymen. About 45 minutes. Through Aug. 15 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Tickets start at $15. publictheater.org.
Seven Deadly Sins, by Moisés Kaufman, Jeffrey LaHoste, Bess Wohl, Ngozi Anyanwu, Thomas Bradshaw and Ming Peiffer. Directed by Kaufman. Lighting, Yuki Link; sound, Tyler Kieffer. About 100 minutes. Tickets start at $55. Through July 25 in the Meatpacking District, starting on Gansevoort Street.