Thursday, March 26, 2009

On-Stage: George Orwell’s 1984

Skip the Watchmen and go straight to the source. Every subsequent depiction of future totalitarian dystopias has borrowed heavily from the concepts and vocabulary of George Orwell’s 1984. Though thematically similar to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984 coined terms like “Big Brother,” “Thought Crime,” and “Newspeak” that continue to profoundly influence our political discourse. In addition to being a chilling cautionary tale, George Orwell's 1984 also happens to be a compelling story, which transitions surprisingly smoothly to the stage in a production of British theater director Alan Lyddiard’s adaptation mounted by the Godlight Theatre Company, which officially opened at the 59E59 Theaters last night.

Winston Smith is an everyman, a modest cog-in-the-wheel working in Minitrue, Oceania’s Ministry of Truth (meaning censorship and disinformation), where non-persons are deleted from the historical record to serve the interests of the party. Weary of the constant surveillance and incessant propaganda, Smith is already a criminal, consciously guilty of “thought crime” by virtue of his disillusionment.

There is little opportunity for meaningful human interaction in drab, regimented Oceania, where children are encouraged to inform on their parents and two-way telescreens are omnipresent. However, Smith’s mundane existence is jolted by two extraordinary occurrences. O’Brien, a senior party member exchanges a meaningful glance with Smith, stirring memories buried deep within Smith’s unconscious of a dream long forgotten. Soon thereafter, Julia, one of his particularly zealous colleagues, surreptitiously slips him a note, which simply says: “I love you.”

The Godlight production is officially licensed by the Orwell estate, so despite some condensing for dramatic purposes, it is faithful to the spirit and overall storyline of his novel. That means all events inexorably lead to Room 101. Despite knowing what is in store for Smith there (as everyone should), it is still very disturbing to watch, thanks to the creative staging of director Joe Tantalo and production designer Maruti Evans. While 59E59’s Theater C is an intimate space, they convincingly convey the surreally dehumanizing environment of Oceania.

Most impressive is Gregory Konow’s performance as Smith. At first blush, he seems like the wrong physical type, not being the gaunt Englishman, like John Hurt or Peter Cushing, who we have come to expect in the part. However, he really fleshes out the humanity of the character, expressing the loneliness and vulnerability of the lowly Minitruth drone. He is nicely balanced by Dustin Olson as the coldly calculating O’Brien, who makes his final words with Smith far more frightening than his torturous actions. In fact, the entire production is quite well cast (although the attractive vinyl-clad actresses playing the four telescreens barking orders at Oceania’s citizens might not represent such an unpleasant prospect to some in the audience).

George Orwell’s 1984 is a true masterpiece, which everyone should read. The Godlight’s impressive production remains completely engrossing for those familiar with the novel, and ought to be both accessible and absorbing for those walking in cold. Now open, its limited run at the 59E59 ends April 19th.