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BWW Review: 1984, an Unsettling Play for Unsettling Times, at Artists Rep

BWW Review: 1984, an Unsettling Play for Unsettling Times, at Artists Rep

It may have been a while since you've read George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984 (or maybe not - the results of the 2016 election propelled the book back to the bestsellers list). But even if you've read the novel recently, you probably skipped the appendix. This appendix, "The Principles of Newspeak," is a treatise on the grammar that the totalitarian regime known as the Party, implemented as a way to control critical thought in the country of Oceania. It's also the starting point for Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan's play 1984, which just launched the 2019-2020 season at Artists Rep.

What's important about the appendix isn't its contents, but the fact that it exists at all. It looks back on the world of 1984 from some point in the future. The implication is that the Party ultimately fell, that Oceania's foray into totalitarianism eventually came to an end. It is, perhaps, supposed to provide hope when things look bleak.

And things can hardly look bleaker. Oceania is a society where privacy doesn't exist, where screens control people's lives, where the government spends most of its time whipping people into a rage against imagined enemies, and where language is distorted to disguise the truth. Though the novel was published in 1949 and the play debuted in 2013, it's not hard to draw parallels to today.

The central character is Winston Smith, who's about to perform his first subversive act of starting a diary. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth and is in charge of literally rewriting history. Keeping a diary is a crime because it's a record of events that the Party can't control. As the play opens, Winston is in a fragile mental state and starting to doubt his own memory. Over the course of the next 100ish minutes, he works to hang onto sanity and hope by joining the Brotherhood, a resistance organization.

I'm not going to go much more into the plot. The play assumes that you have at least a passing acquaintance with the sociopolitical climate, as well as the vocabulary, of Oceania. So, if you haven't read the book, that should be job #1.

Artists Rep's production, directed by Damaso Rodriguez, is chill-inducing as soon as you walk in the theatre, full of screens that make it very clear that Big Brother is watching. That chill stays through the whole play, building up to the famous torture scenes. Thankfully, Rodriguez has chosen to spare Portland audiences some of the discomfort by turning out the lights during the worst of it.

The cast is full of Artists Rep favorites, including Chris Harder, Allen Nause, Michael Mendelson, John San Nicolas, and Sara Hennessy. They all give fine performances, especially Harder, whose Winston is a perfect everyman - someone easy to identify with right up to and including the disturbing ending, and Mendelson, who I failed to recognize until the very last scene, even though I've seen him in many shows. But the standout for me in this production was Jeb Berrier, who plays Parsons, an affable man who serves as a cautionary tale of successful brainwashing.

Overall, if you're looking for some end-of-summer escapist theatre, 1984 isn't it. But if you're interested in a thought-provoking, deeply unsettling play about the consequences of the decline of critical thought, definitely go see it.

1984 runs through October 6 at Imago Theatre. Details and tickets here.

Photo credit: Kathleen Kelly

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