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BWW REVIEW: What's Scarier than George Orwell's 1984? Politics in 2016.

Adapted and directed by Robert Icke & Duncan MacMillan; design, Chloe Lamford; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Tom Gibbons; video, Tim Reid

Cast in Alphabetical Order:

Parsons, Simon Coates; O'Brien, Tim Dutton; Charrington, Stephen Fewell; Martin, Christopher Patrick Nolan; Syme, Ben Porter; Winston, Mathew Spencer; Mrs. Parsons, Mandi Symonds; Julia, Hara Yannas

Performances and Tickets:

Now through March 6, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300.

The horrific future depicted in George Orwell's cautionary tale "1984" feels that much more frightening in 2016 because so much of the oligarchical world predicted by the visionary author in his dystopian 1949 novel has come to fruition. The power gap between the haves and the have-nots is alarming. Politicians use doublethink to twist hypocrisies into mind-numbing (and brainwashing) campaign slogans. Three-second sound bites and 140-character tweets are the newspeak that distills thought into easily regurgitated propaganda.

It's too bad then that the theatrical production of 1984 currently being presented by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge doesn't live up to its potential. In this case reality is more compelling than fiction. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and company are much scarier than this stage version's Big Brother.

In Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan's often ponderous adaptation, the dangers threatening radical thinkers Winston (Matthew Spencer) and Julia (Hara Yannas) don't feel ever present. Despite the incessant barrage of messages proclaiming War Is Peace and Slavery Is Freedom, and the constant video and audio surveillance of every comrade's word, thought and deed, paranoia gets lost in monotony. Yes, The Party has reduced individuals to automatons, but the actors' robotic movements and lifeless speech patterns make audience engagement into their characters' plight a difficult challenge indeed.

When action finally erupts about two thirds of the way through, the impact is overwhelming. For graphic bloody torture becomes the interrogation tool of choice for O'Brien (Tim Dutton), a quietly sadistic enforcer that makes it eminently clear that resistance to The Party line is futile.

Dutton, Spencer and Yannas are all 100% committed in their performances, and remarkably they are able to find ways to bring life to the stultifying material. Dutton, in particular, is chilling as Big Brother's ironically titled Minister of Love. He crushes the last vestiges of resistance and hope out of Winston and Julia with a calm that is terrifying.

As Winston, Spencer has a wide-eyed wonder and innocence about him that draws him deeper and deeper into political rebellion. His work as a redactor of history is the very thing that sparks his curiosity about the more egalitarian governments of the past. Julia ignites a more personal rebellion in Spencer, tempting him to escape with her into the shadows unseen by Big Brother's cameras. There they awaken forgotten instincts, enjoying the bliss of forbidden coffee, chocolate and sex.

The biggest star of the U.K's Headlong production of 1984 is the giant video screen that hovers intrusively above the full width of the stage. On it carefully calculated images and messages appear, pummeling viewers into submission. It also becomes a window into the more intimate moments shared by an unsuspecting Spencer and Julia. As a result, the audience is transformed into a voyeuristic Big Brother, enjoying but also chronicling what is being seen.

The early going of 1984 is particularly clumsy. The flatness of the actors' delivery and the lack of specificity in set and scene changes make it difficult to decipher who's who and what exactly is happening. Once the love story develops, however, the play reverts to more decipherable storytelling.

At 105 minutes without intermission, 1984 holds its audience captive. That may be a good thing in terms of immersing playgoers fully within the totalitarian experience. However, for those inclined to squirm in their seats looking for the nearest exits, be warned. Resistance is futile.

PHOTOS BY MANUEL HARLAN: Matthew Spencer as Winston; the cast of 1984; Tim Dutton as O'Brien; Ben Porter as Syme, Stephen Fewell as Charrington, Simon Coates as Parsons, and Matthew Spencer; Matthew Spencer

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