In the early years of the 21st century, no company was more synonymous with corporate corruption than Enron. The shady accounting and outright fraud of many of the Houston-based energy company’s dealings led to a massive bankruptcy, congressional investigation and decades of jail time for some of the business’ top executives.
Though certainly a dramatic story, the tale of Enron’s downfall would at first blush seem to be an unusual topic for British playwright Lucy Prebble, whose other major works focus on weighty personal issues like pedophilia (“The Sugar Syndrome”) and the nature of love in the age of psychopharmacology (“The Effect”). However, in the story of Enron’s downfall, Prebble sees not just a tale of corporate greed but also one of toxic masculinity run rampant. Her play, “Enron,” focuses on two of the men at the heart of the scandal in order to explore how “boys being boys” plays out in contemporary capitalism.
The University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance’s new production of “Enron,” running through March 4, takes Prebble’s critique of business culture even further through the clever conceit of casting only female and nonbinary actors in the roles of men who tie their own sense of masculinity with their corporate success. In so doing, director Hannah Wolf has crafted a nuanced, satirical, enraging piece of theater that is more timely in the era of “Me, Too” than ever before.
“Enron” is an ensemble piece, with 20 performers taking on 50 different roles. Their words and movements glide across the stage kinetically, mixing the Shakespearean drama of private offices with the dance-like choreography of the trading floor. All of the production’s various design elements — from Cait Graham’s costumes, to Roxy Mojica’s set and Robert Mallin’s projections — work in perfect sync with the performers to create a theatrical “gesamtkunstwerk,” the German term for a piece of art that makes use of multiple other media and forms to create a more potent whole.
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Throughout the show, it is a pleasure to watch these young women and nonbinary performers work through their portrayals of different types of men with different sorts of masculinities. Annemarie Alaniz’s Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO and the protagonist of the story, is a fully realized portrait of the toxic masculinity of fragile men. She channels Skilling’s underlying geeky insecurity as it manifests in alpha-male posturing about his intelligence. This is counterbalanced by Caroline Beagles’ performance as Andy Fastow, the company’s CFO, who continually prostrates himself before Skilling in an intimate, yet off-putting, surrogate father/son relationship; as well as by Kayla Johnson’s portrayal of company founder and chairman Ken Lay with some Texas “good ol’ boy” macho swagger.
Bella Medina, meanwhile, provides the story with its feminine perspective through the lens of Claudia Roe, a fictional amalgamation of various women at Enron. Medina walks a razor-thin line in her performance, simultaneously making Roe the most sympathetic character as well as the most physically imposing, providing a glimpse at the ways in which corporate culture castigates women for being too soft as well as too hard-edged.
Though the topic it ostensibly covers relates to American corporate culture in the 1990s, “Enron” is ultimately about much more than this. In its excoriating critique of both toxic masculinity and corporate greed, this production by UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance is a complex, thrilling and extremely contemporary look at the ways in which today’s American men are destroying their country because of their own fragile egos.
When: 7:30 p.m. March 2-3, 2 p.m. March 4
Where: Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd St.