BWW Review: In 1984 at Garden Theatre, Big Brother Is Shocking You...
When 1984 opened on Broadway in 2017, people were fainting, screaming, and walking out in disgust. In London, audience members threw up in the theater. Stars Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde each broke bones on stage.
At one performance, patrons pleaded for the actors to lay off the torture scenes, and at another, the crowd broke into a fight. Cops were called; charges were filed. Tickets came with a trigger warning. Kids under 13 weren't allowed inside.
Two years later, it's already the stuff of legend.
So I was more than a little surprised to see 1984 on this year's lineup for the little Garden Theatre outside of Orlando. Then again, Robb Winn Anderson - artistic director for the Garden - has been making interesting choices here for a while. It's a shame he's leaving at the end of this season.
1984 is adapted, of course, from the classic George Orwell novel of the same name. I read it for the first time last month, in preparation for seeing the show, and soon found myself obsessed.
Written in 1948 and imagining what the world would look like in 40 years, it is a work so prescient, so pressing, and so horrifying that if every American were to read it in the same week, I suspect the country would utterly change overnight.
Incidentally, I assumed I was the only one in the world who'd never read it (my high school class having divided into teams - half assigned Orwell, the other half Shelley).
But in the last few weeks, I've asked nearly everyone I know. Turns out, most of them never did either, prompting my new theory: everyone walks around secretly believing everyone else has read 1984 when, really, they're not alone. And there's something very 1984 about that. Our protagonist, Winston, believes he's alone in the world too... an awful world in which Big Brother is always watching and individualism is the enemy of the state.
The Garden, though, creates quite an experience - and doesn't hold back one bit.
Under Bobbie Bell's imaginative direction, this production relies heavily on video screens. It's the show's greatest weakness and its greatest strength. Unfortunately, stagecraft and filmmaking are not the same talents, and some of the filmed segments come across as YouTube-y. But then there are moments where the use of video contributes to the experience so vibrantly that it borders on brilliant. Upon entering, audience members see themselves on display, conspicuous surveillance cameras pointed down at the crowd.
Those who know 1984 will anxiously await a big twist, and let me tell you, I couldn't have dreamed of a better execution. It was so startling and dramatic that I physically jumped in my seat, even though I knew what was coming.
Two other twists don't come through so well. One is from the book: Julia's reveal. In Orwell's novel, we are genuinely confused about her allegiances, to great effect. In the play - and I can't put my finger on whether it's the performance, the direction, or the script at fault - but it's far too obvious whose side she's on from the get-go. Even after the reveal, Julia is watered down in general, and the text is definitely at fault for that. But once the character moves into the forefront, Kristie Geng gives a strong and commanding performance. I much preferred her Julia to Suzanna Hamilton's in the 1984 film (yes, there was a movie version that year).
The other twist is entirely new to Icke and Macmillan's play: a decision to repeatedly stop the 1984 narrative and cut to a scene in the distant future. On the one hand, the dialogue is fascinating, a meta conversation about the novel that is positively insightful. But on the other, it robs the 1984 story of momentum. It might have worked as an epilogue or a second act, but as an interwoven flash-forward, it's incredibly confusing.
As for all the vomit-inducing theatrics: the Garden doesn't water things down for Disney town. Teeth are pulled. Finger tips are sliced off. Thick blood pours out of a character's mouth so voluminously that you start to wonder how many packets could possibly fit in the actor's mouth. And thanks to truly powerful performances by Brian Zealand and Stephen Lima, it all feels very real in the moment.
I didn't see anyone throw up or pass out, but a couple did get up and leave, and the lady behind me kept shouting, "Oh God! Oh God!"
Honestly, I find it all very exciting. Theatre ought to push the limits from time to time. I'm impressed by the Garden's bravery in staging this show so unflinchingly. And while the "political torture porn" (as The Hollywood Reporter put it) might strike some as excessive or unwarranted, going way beyond what the novel describes, I think it recognizes a central dilemma in adapting 1984: so much of its tension is in the mind. Here, Orwell's horror translates into something equally palpable for a theatre audience.
It's also hard to find the humor in Orwell's world, but Tommy Keesling does manage to break the tension as loyal-to-the-Party Parsons; he is a delight. Beside him, utterly committed to the more serious role of Syme is Andrew Romano, who some may recognize from his appearance in The Florida Project. Rounding out the cast are: Kristina Johnson, Ryan Lynch, Adonis Perez, Emily Stone, and several uncredited actors whose work is confined to the pre-taped segments.
On my way out the door, I heard a group of patrons debating what they'd been through. "Just incredible," said one. "One of the weirdest things I've ever seen," said another. "I don't think they read the same book I did," added an older gentlemen. That got a laugh.
Hey, if people can laugh five minutes after this graphic, fascist tour de force, I guess the Garden hasn't gone too far... but maybe just far enough to get you thinking, or reading, or looking at tomorrow morning's headlines through a different lens. Give it a shot if you've got the nerve.
1984 runs through March 17 in downtown Winter Garden, FL. To purchase tickets, visit the Garden Theatre's website or call (407) 877-4736.
What did you think of 1984 at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photos Credit: Garden Theatre