Sunday, October 27, 2019

1984 (The Actors’ Gang 2019 Production) Theatre Review

The book that comes up over and over in conversation and in political criticism these days, more than any other, is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. When we have a president who actually tells his followers not to believe what they see or hear, and they find no problem with that, we are deeply in disturbing territory, the territory of that novel (the exact quote from Trump is “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”). This is the perfect time to revisit Orwell’s work, the perfect time for a revival of Michael Gene Sullivan’s 2006 theatrical adaptation. The play was originally produced at the Actors’ Gang Theater, where it was directed by Tim Robbins. Since then it has gone on to several national and international productions. And now it is being revived at the place where it began, where it is once again directed by Tim Robbins, who is also part of the impeccable cast.

The acting space is a square in the middle of the audience, and there are two television screens at opposite sides above the audience. A heavily pixelated eye stares at us from each screen. We are immediately part of the world of the play. We are being watched. As the audience files in, instrumental renditions of songs like “Que Sera, Sera” and Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” play. Before the play begins, the usual announcements are given a delightful twist, and we are told that The Ministry Of Theatre requires us to silence our cell phones, providing a laugh and helping to immerse us further into the Orwell’s world. As the play opens, Winston Smith (Will Thomas McFadden) is lying on the floor, while four party members (Tom Szymanski, Guebri VanOver, Bob Turton and Hannah Chodos) surround him. A voice sounds from one corner of the room, and all of them turn to face that voice. “How did it begin?” It is a voice of calm authority, a voice that is in control, a voice that can takes its time. (Tim Robbins provides that voice.) And thus begins Winston Smith’s interrogation. He is somewhat disheveled, dressed in an open shirt over a T-shirt, and is barefoot, as if he had been suddenly taken from his home at night. The four party members take turns becoming the people that Winston is questioned about and even Winston himself, recreating scenes from Winston’s diary in order to determine the truth – or, at least, their truth – and to cure him of his insanity before executing him. But in doing so, they seem to be affected, even changed somewhat. Or at least one of them is affected thus. It is fascinating to watch, and the actors do an absolutely tremendous job creating and inhabiting several different people while still maintaining the reality of their main characters. Also, they at times move behind the audience, which makes us feel a bit uneasy, like we ourselves are on trial. We are being watched.

At a couple of points, the television screens suddenly show official news footage, interrupting the action of the play, both for the characters on stage and for those of us in the audience. All heads turn to those screens, and we are all given the same information – or misinformation – about production being up or about a victory in the ongoing war, news that the party members cheer. And you can’t help but wonder how long it would take before audience members began cheering it as well.  One thing that is interesting is how rooted the insidious deceit is, popping up in relatively mundane situations. For example, there is a bit about how the chocolate rations were raised from five to seven ounces, though Winston recalls that actually the rations had gone down from ten to seven ounces. Obviously, this is not a matter of life and death, but the party members keep repeating the lie until Winston gives up. For, again, it’s not all that important how much chocolate people are receiving. This scene reminds me of two things – how Donald Trump keeps repeating lies until people give up contradicting him, and how I recently saw a misleading sale price at Ralph’s (a grocery store here in Los Angeles). Refried beans were advertised as being at a new lower price, two for three dollars, when previously they had actually been a dollar each. The price had gone up, but the store was claiming the price had gone down. So here we are.

It is also interesting how the audience finds humor in the play at the beginning, perhaps feeling a comfortable distance from the action still at that point, but as the play progresses, the laughter dies away. And by the time that O’Brien shows up in the flesh, we are in frightening territory. Tim Robbins delivers a chilling performance, particularly as his O’Brien is so businesslike and rational. Earlier, when Winston and Julia swear allegiance to the resistance movement, it feels the same as swearing allegiance to the authoritarian government, which is interesting and terrifying. They are ready to kill for their cause, and as we’ve been identifying with these characters, we can’t help but question our own capabilities for murder, even for a cause we might believe to be just. O’Brien raises just that point later, questioning Winston’s supposed moral superiority, and thus calling into question the moral superiority of those in the audience. And that is partly why attending a performance of this production is a powerful and intense and ultimately a very personal experience.

This production of 1984 was directed by Tim Robbins, and runs through December 7th. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, and including that intermission the performance is approximately two hours and fifteen minutes. The Actors’ Gang Theater is located at 9070 Venice Blvd. in Culver City, California. Visit the Actors’ Gang website for full schedule.

No comments:

Post a Comment