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Making Enron's numbers add up for the stage

3.5 out of 4 stars

Enron is a play about bubbles – from the tiny ones in champagne that go straight to your head, to the big ones on stock markets that can dizzy whole economies, but particularly the ones smart people can get sucked into when they overestimate their own talent and abilities, and ignore outside opinion.

Written by British playwright Lucy Prebble, this hybrid of vaudeville and docudrama is also famous for being a bit of a bubble itself. It was rated a strong buy by the London critics in 2010, but when it subsequently held its IPO on Broadway, the New York analysts popped it with glee.

In its Canadian premiere at Theatre Calgary – played in front of a savvy audience that knows a thing or two about the energy industry and electricity deregulation – Prebble's script strongly impresses distanced from all that hype.

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It's a dazzling, whirling piece of debate that feels more relevant than ever, even if it is a little chunky as a narrative – and perhaps a tad too uncertain of its ability to hold attention with all the chatter about mark-to-market accounting and stock-option pension plans that, personally, I found entirely engrossing in Antoni Cimolino's production.

Cimolino is, of course, the general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who has recently declared that he would like to be artistic director after Des McAnuff leaves in 2013. Enron is one of his rare forays outside of the Ontario festival as a director and so is being keenly watched.

Cimolino's production of the play may be less confidently stylish than the original staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company's Rupert Goold, but it also feels much more substantial.

In its British production, the Texas accents were cringe-worthy, and a sense of anti-American caricature undercut the show. With Cimolino at the helm, however, the visuals are less overwhelming, and the characters and Prebble's text get a fairer shake. It's surprisingly easy to be seduced by the amoral ideas of the three main men involved in the rise and fall of Enron.

As George W. Bush-courting chairman Ken Lay, Barry Flatman resurrects to excellent effect the gruff, good ol' boy persona he used to play W. himself in David Hare's Stuff Happens. And Rylan Wilkie, one of Western Canada's most intriguing young actors, is both funny and creepy as grinning, socially autistic CFO Andy Fastow.

Best of all, however, is Graham Abbey as Jeff Skilling, the president of Enron who ushers in mark-to-market – an accounting practice of counting chickens before they're hatched that has more recently come into question as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Abbey's cocky and charismatic Skilling is an arrogant atheist who evolves into a kind of Darwinian prophet, an over-confident confidence man who continues to believe his own tricks even as the stock price plummets, employees lose their savings and he ends up in handcuffs.

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Indeed, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, Prebble's play portrays Skilling as ahead of his time – arguing that, instead of viewing Enron as a cautionary tale, businesses have continued to emulate its practices up to our own shaky economic times.

In order to heighten the drama, Prebble invents a fictional foil for Skilling named Claudia (played by a prickly Brigit Wilson), the only major female character, who nevertheless represents the old guard in business. She wants Enron to build power plants in India, while Skilling wants the company to forget about producing anything and get rich on trading deregulated electricity.

In an attempt to spice up her play, Prebble intersperses her more thoughtful and entertainingly expletive-littered scenes with moments of pure razzle-dazzle. The company's accountants are a ventriloquist act, the board members are three blind mice, while the Lehman Brothers make an appearance as a pair of conjoined twins that brings down the house. However, Anita Miotti's choreography between scenes doesn't quite pack the punch it's aiming for.

Most audaciously, the "Raptors" that Fastow designs to eat Enron's debt through a shadow company are red-eyed velociraptors, more cuddly than frightening in Bretta Gerecke's design. Gerecke's main set element is a giant cube with multiple levels that sits atop a stage that thrusts out on an angle into the audience like a stock-market arrow.

This becomes a disco Rubix cube thanks to Kevin Lamotte's game-show lighting. It also gets plastered in nostalgic projections put together by Jamie Nesbitt that revive memories of figures from Bill Clinton to Alan Greenspan over a 1990s soundtrack of Daft Punk and the Macarena.

In the end, Prebble's crowd-pleasing tricks – as executed somewhat unevenly by Cimolino – never feel entirely integrated into the whole. But the production truly connects with its audience, and that is a thrill.

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  • Written by Lucy Prebble
  • Directed by Antoni Cimolino
  • Starring Graham Abbey
  • At Theatre Calgary in Calgary

Enron runs until Feb. 19.

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