BWW Review: 1984 is Doubleplusungood at Obsidian Theater
Citizens are monitored by their televisions which act as two way portals transmitting propaganda and allowing the military to spy on the general population. Individualism and independent thinking are illegal and called "thoughtcrime", and punishment is swift and brutal by the Thought Police. Big Brother is the dictator of a grand party who everyone follows, and the enemy is Goldstein who represents the fears of the common man. The wealthy top 2% live lives of luxury and pleasure, while most of the world subsists on scraps and charity that the state provides. The book has long been taught in high schools as the perfect example of a dystopian novel where all the world goes to hell, and it has been told in film as well.
This stage adaptation from Michael Gene Sullivan relays the complex tale of citizen Winston Smith in flashback as he testifies to a tribunal about his crimes the court is analyzing. Four party members act out the tale of how he meets Julia and tries to join the resistance to Big Brother while he narrates it. There is a disembodied voice that directs the action that reveals himself in a pivotal point to become a focal character. It allows 1984 to become a play that only requires one setting with no costume changes or need for much in scenery or lighting. Unfortunately it also allows for the material to drone on and on in simplistic beats that feel monotonous after two acts with no variations. It's a relevant play, but it's not entertaining when all is said and done.
Director Tom Stell has inserted this into Obsidian Theater with blank walls, a single raised platform in the center, and a few styrofoam sticks to beat people with in holders around the room. The cast is outfitted in simple blue polos with THE MINISTRY OF LOVE imprints as well as a nod to INGSOC on their sleeves from the book. These simple tops are matched with khaki bottoms. Frankly it all looks like a school uniform which is ironic since the sparse set and overbright lights conjure images of what a high school theatre department would do with this material. I half expected a thank you to OLD NAVY for providing the clothing from the senior class. Cameras around the room are a nice touch, but technology never invades the show like it should. It definitely doesn't feel threatening or oppressive, and the lack of danger sucks the drama out of the proceedings.
Luckily the cast is up to most of the material with Allen Titel beginning and ending up on the floor as Winston Smith. He gives an incredibly demanding performance throughout the show, and excels in convincingly being wracked in pain with the various tortures he endures physically and emotionally. He takes a thankless role of not really even being an active participant in his own character's story, and somehow makes us care for his fate. Chris Gibson as O'Brien uses his trademark silky serial killer voice to great effect as the mouthpiece of the party early on, and then emerges in a curious Trump red tie and MR. Rogers sweater. He hovers in the space of autocrat crossed with next door neighbor throughout the second act, and for the most part it works. But again, I wished he had more edge than what this production seems to allow. He's just not scary enough to get me through the climax.
The Party Members do a good dual job of being bratty socialists as well as the compatriots of Winston's revolution. I was captivated by Danielle Bunch who was seductive and sweet as Winston's love interest Julia, but then gleeful and cruel when she returned to her fascist true face. Cameron William David, Giovanni Sandoval, and Blake Alexander Weir all command the stage well as not so friendly Thought Police who take on multiple roles throughout the evening. They all give energy where it is needed, and when 1984 works it is when it rests in their hands.
The problem is this 1984 feels cheap and flat, a play where the novel is shouted to the audience in a small house by people who appear to be dressed to go off to school to study it. It's certainly a relevant piece for our time, and I applaud the intention of bringing it to life in this era of political debate and mistrust of the media. But if you're going to dig this one up then have the nerve to make it feel dangerously close to the outside world. The script is monotonous, the production looks like it was merely a dime, and a cast of good actors just can't save it. There is much to think about, but just not a lot to engage you. If I wanted two hours of people screaming propaganda at me while dressed badly I would turn on cable news. The cast is the best reason to see this one, but 1984 isn't nearly as scary as it should be.
1984 plays at the Obsidian Theater until June 17th. Tickets can be purchased through the website for Standing Room Only at http://www.sro-productions.com/ . They can also be bought through the theater's website at http://www.obsidiantheater.org/ .