January 31 – February 19, 2012
Max Bell Theatre
Listen for my live review of Enron on CBC’s Eyeopener on Monday, February 6 at 7:40 am
Any theatre critic who tells you that they don’t read other reviewers’ takes on a production is lying. We all do it. This is especially true for a play like Lucy Prebble’s Enron which was such a hit in England (with two successful runs) and yet such a flop on Broadway (the play closed after only fifteen performances). The Guardian’s Michael Bilington called Enron, “a fantastic theatrical event…. an exhilarating mix of political satire, modern morality and multimedia spectacle.” While Ben Brantley of the New York Times declared the play, “A flashy but labored economics lesson…. factitious, all show (or show and tell) and little substance.” Over-enthusiasm on the part of the Brits or a case of US sour grapes at the Wall Street bashing from across the pond? Or maybe just a case of the Russell Brand phenomenon – things that are huge in Britain that cause Americans to gag. Regardless, I’m sure the critics had their reasons and their respective audiences reacted similarly. So when I learned that Enron was making its Canadian premiere here in Calgary, I was very intrigued to see what my maple leaf sensibilities thought of it.
At the risk of subverting the Canadian global peacemaker role and employing it as a tool of theatre critique, I’d say that Enron fairly falls somewhere between the two opposing reviews. It was not, as the Brits claimed, an altogether exhilarating experience. But nor was it a laboured and contrived puff piece as it was called in New York.
The play is an entertaining show that benefits greatly from a decent cast, Antoni Cimolino’s smart direction, creative set design, interesting use of multi-media elements, the ability to dramatize complicated financial dealings into lay-person friendly narrative and at times, the inspired use of puppets. Enron is also a show that suffers from the weight of an over-loaded plot that tries to cram too many elements into the second half, a script that occasionally falls short, a preachy but empty final monologue and at times, the uninspired use of puppets.
The play opens in 1992 with the Houston-based Enron hiring of Jeffrey Skilling on the back of his mark to market scheme – an accounting system where the company can realize the profits it’s going to make now as opposed to waiting for the money to actually come in. Starting off as a bit of a finance geek, Skilling quickly gets the taste for climbing the corporate ladder and eventually wins the favour of Enron Chairman Ken Lay who promotes him to President over his equally ambitious colleague, Claudia Roe (an amalgam of several female executives who served at Enron). As a result of his accounting system, Skilling is able to show great profits for Enron and the markets react accordingly by pushing the stock price to never before seen highs. But Skilling has a problem. Those profits he promised would come in haven’t and unless he does something about it, the whole situation will explode. Enter Andy Fastow, a finance whiz who comes up with a plan for Enron to open shadow companies he calls Raptors (yes, he was a Jurassic Park fan) that will take on Enron’s debt until the real profits materialize so Enron’s books don’t have to show a loss. It works for a while and pretty soon with a combination of fancy accounting, favourable market developments and great analyst-love for the company, Enron becomes more successful than ever. But like all good morality tales, the cheating eventually catches up with the fraudsters. Enron’s smoke and mirror “success” is exposed and the world finds out that the company is worth nothing, leaving thousands of employees penniless and Wall Street with its tail between its legs. As anyone who watched the news in the early 2000’s knows, charges were laid, Fastow and Skilling were jailed and Lay died of a heart attack before sentencing.
Financial stories, while they may have intrigue and drama, are not the easiest thing to translate to a stage, and this is where Prebble excels. Metaphor is the name of the game when her characters attempt to explain the workings of markets and corporate dealings and they do so with easily digestible sound bites which resonate regardless of your financial aptitude. When talking about hedging, Fastow’s character likens it to owning airline stock but also buying stock in a car rental company should an airplane crash and people be suddenly afraid to fly. When explaining why Wall Street was so blindly enthusiastic about Enron, one analyst character says it’s like getting on a plane – you don’t know exactly how it works but you and everyone around you believes it is going to fly and if you stop the flight because you don’t know how the plane works you look crazy. The double airplane imagery aside, these metaphors appear fairly unforced in the dialogue and go a long way to bringing the audiences’ understanding of events and ability to thereby enjoy the play up to speed.
And in the first act, there is much to enjoy. Breta Gerecke gives us a multi-level enclosed set with sliding doors that open to expose the action in the Enron offices or boardrooms while also acting as a screen for the numerous 90’s themed images projected on its surface. The set seems to pulsate with energy, sometimes literally in the case of Fastow’s basement office which glows nefariously red with financial misdeeds, and brings a unique and much-needed visual impact to this otherwise bookish story.
Puppet-like costuming also goes a long way to provide colour and tongue-in-cheek story development in the first act. Enron Board members as big-headed blind mice, the Raptor shadow companies as (you guessed it) full body Raptor suits, an Arthur Andersen accountant as a ventriloquist with dummy and investment bank Lehman Brothers as comical Siamese twins – these were all employed to their drama/comedy best and kept audiences guessing at what might be next.
The rest of the first act was filled out with some cute, but not too cute, blessedly short song and dance bits that served as punctuations to the narrative rather than full sentences and a cast that seemed to grasp that they were playing caricatures of their real life Enron roles rather than being asked to deliver deep meaningful character studies. Graham Abbey as Jeffrey Skilling, Barry Flatman as Kenneth Lay and Rylan Wilkie as Andy Fastow all do a fine job onstage even if not much is asked from them. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable first half to the evening that flowed effortlessly and with great energy thanks to Cimolino’s entertaining direction.
But like the Enron collapse in the second act, the play’s writing, direction, puppet-use and story-telling took a downward tumble that it could simply not recover from. One of the challenges in adapting a true story for the stage is what to leave in and what to dismiss. Instead of editing or amalgamating the events of Enron’s undoing for dramatic effect, Prebble tries to stuff them all into a bloated second act that provides us with too many scenes yet not enough information. We get the justice hearings and the courtroom scenes yet it isn’t until Skilling’s lawyer talks to him later on that we fully understand that Fastow ratted out Skilling in return for a lesser sentence. In other words, three scenes that could have easily been done in one, to greater effect. Then there’s the awkwardly staged inclusion of Skilling’s drunken and paranoid exchange with a street-walker. Yes, we vaguely recall that Skilling had an arrest for public intoxication, but it did nothing to move the story forward and instead was one more unnecessary layer on an act that was already dragging badly.
Even more egregious was the over-use of the Raptor creatures in the second half. Far from simply being metaphors for the shadow companies, Cimolino has them at the forefront of every scene involving Fastow. They growl, they bite, they get sick, they need to be tasered to be kept under control. What was a clever metaphor in the first half became a gratingly literal interpretation of how the shadow companies were out of control. If one could be beaten over the head with a Raptor, the audience surely experienced it.
But perhaps the most disappointing moment of the second half was the final monologue delivered by Skilling before he enters his cell. A huge stock chart is projected on the set and Skilling begins a long speech about how every innovation has occurred by being in an unrealistic bubble and that his actions at Enron were just another bubble that would have eventually born the same type of fruit. It is a hubris –filled monologue that I’m guessing is supposed to show Skilling’s lack of remorse and perhaps betray Prebble’s belief that Skilling was heartless right up to the end. But weak writing foils this effort and instead sends Skilling to his cell with the air taken out of both Abbey’s performance and a second act that was already floundering.
So in the end, Enron the play has much in common with Enron the company. Both employed creative and innovative elements to make it look extremely attractive, both were an entertaining ride for a while with many successful features, but ultimately both the Enron the play and Enron the company came undone and ended with a whimper. However, unlike the risk that Enron the company took, I heartily applaud the risk taken in the play. I would rather see a production that takes chances and stages something unique even if it fails on some levels than be made to sit through a safe bet. Enron may be somewhat lacking in the end, but when looked at from a big picture point of view, its hits outweigh the disappointments and the good can be focused on enough to enjoy the result. Or at least that’s my measured Canadian take on it.
For the guys – Don’t be afraid by the puppets and the dancing. This is a financial tale told fairly well with some great theatrical moments. SEE IT
For the girls – Whether you followed the story or not, you’ll get the gist and will be uniquely entertained by the first half. Focus on that as you shuffle in your seat during the conclusion. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – You’ll either find the puppets helpful in the story-telling or totally preposterous. This is not breezy theatre going – you have to pay attention to get the financial narrative and keep up. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Yes the characters and script are terribly ill-formed at times, but the narrative method is unique, the production is visually exciting and it’s a chance to see Cimolino direct before he most likely nabs the most important job in Canadian Theatre as Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Company. SEE IT