Chris Campbell and Clayton Dean Smith in 1984(Photo © Richard Burdon)
Chris Campbell and Clayton Dean Smith in 1984
(Photo © Richard Burdon)
Synapse Productions, which includes Dame Judi Dench on its artistic advisory board, is so intent on giving patrons of The Orwell Project as potent an Orwellian experience as possible that in-your-face tactics are employed from the minute audience members enter the theater and approach the box office. But the Synapse shakers probably don't wish to haves Orwell's observation that "the party seeks power entirely for its own sake" applied to themselves. Rather, they're concerned with advertising the continuing immediacy of the pessimistic author's mid-century vision 1984.

The production's ticket seller is seated behind a high, wide, black desk upon which an adding machine spills a long strip of bureaucracy-gone-haywire paper. Talking to the seller requires an attendee to look way up, rather like a second-grader asking a teacher for permission to go to the lavatory. While waiting for the transaction to be concluded, patrons are photographed by a roving shutterbug. The doors to the auditorium are kept shut until management is good and ready, so audience members wanting to find a seat in the lobby shuffle towards three long pews that face a bank of TV monitors displaying an Orwell graphic with eyes shifting from side to side. Atop the monitors, the photographs just taken have been tossed randomly. So Big Brother is watching even before the lights go up on the actual theatrics. It's all in good fun, of course -- or is it? More likely, it's partly meant to serve as a preview of global attractions that may come to be if the right cautionary steps aren't taken pronto.

And then the Project gets underway. It's in two parts that are intended to be seen at separate performances -- one, Peter Hall's 1984 National Theatre adaptation of Orwell's allegory Animal Farm, with Richard Peaslee's music and Adrian Mitchell's lyrics; and two, Alan Lyddiard's treatment of Orwell's 1984, first presented in 2001 by Newcastle's Northern Stage Ensemble. For Animal Farm, Synapse seems to have enhanced Hall's original version by introducing puppets that, in some cases, have the appearance of those that Julie Taymor went with in The Lion King and other works of hers. Actors disguised at most by, for example, headpieces representing a pig's snout are seen in full body, holding poles on which manipulable animal heads have been built. In the case of chickens, an actor simply holds a pair of puppets and works the heads and wings; and sheep are represented by a shaggy box with four bobbing heads.

Thanks to this innovation and to the amusing designs of Emily DeCola and Eric Wright, Animal Farm is a delight even as it remains faithful to Orwell's elaboration on Lord Acton's comment about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. In Orwell's chilling fable --which snubbed its nose at Joseph Stalin's perversion of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky but can now also be read as a comment on more recent regime changes -- livestock run the cruel Farmer Jones off of his property, vowing to operate it themselves under a share-and-share-alike policy. But over time, the pigs -- who have declared themselves the commune's thinking participants -- slowly begin to limit the others' freedoms. Quietly revising the rules by which everyone must abide, they change their dictum from "all animals are equal" to "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Hall's adaptation is very tidy indeed -- although more might be expected of the Peaslee melodies, which are abrupt little items for the most part, and Mitchell's lyrics, which aren't witty enough. Neither are the songlets sung well by an otherwise jaunty cast, some of whom -- Aaron Mostkoff Unger, Francis Kelly, Jenny Mercein, Ben Masur, Darius Stone, Scott Hitz -- are more equal than others. Director David Travis may be more equal than all of them as he keeps things moving rapidly.

Only slightly less effective is 1984, perhaps because Orwell's 1949 novel -- longer and more complex than Animal Farm -- lends itself less easily to removal from between hard covers. (Film versions in 1956 and 1984 failed to make an impression on audiences.) Though dramatist Lyddiard has dropped some sequences, including manifesto chapters supposedly written by a Trotskyite figure called Emmanuel Goldstein, he's hewed to the basic storyline. It involves "Big Brother is Watching You" dissenter Winston Smith, who falls in love against party wishes with a woman named Julia and is eventually betrayed by her to an official called O'Brien. At first refusing to believe that -- as Big Brother insists -- ignorance is strength, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and two and two may in some circumstances equal five, Winston is eventually tormented into changing his mind.

Clayton Dean Smith and Joseph Culliton in 1984(Photo © Richard Burdon)
Clayton Dean Smith and Joseph Culliton in 1984
(Photo © Richard Burdon)
As in Animal Farm, Orwell sees only shadow at the end of the tunnel in 1984. Yet how far off the mark was the author, who died in 1950 just at the Cold War was, umm, heating up? Those were times that tried men's souls -- just as do our current times, with a Patriot Act clearly contrived by its promulgators to imply that anyone not supporting it must be unpatriotic. (Martin McDonagh's brilliant Pillowman, now on view in London and set in a police state, benefits from its Orwellian undercurrents; Caryl Churchill's 2002 play Far Away also owes Orwell a bow.)

The Synapse 1984 production is, almost by definition, dark. Panels on which slides are projected slip across the front of the stage, eventually revealing many brief scenes and then the long, harrowing torture scene. The production's look, that of a grey zone, is created by the design team for both halves of The Orwell Project -- Adrian W. Jones (sets), Jenny Mannis (costumes), Marcus Doshi (lighting) and -- especially busy this half -- Fitz Patton (sound). Directed with an eye and ear for high anxiety by Ginevra Bull, Clayton Dean Smith is a tremulous Winston; Chris Campbell a stoically aggressive Julia; and Joseph Culliton a smilingly odious O'Brien.

Theatergoers are encouraged to see both plays in The Orwell Project, in particular to notice how alike these classics are when viewed so closely together. In both, the rights of man and woman are stripped by governing bodies seeking power for power's sake; even more scarifying, repressive regimes are overthrown by politicians who, in time, become as repressive or more so than their predecessors. It's a dire view of humanity that Orwell (born Eric Blair) lived with and was haunted by. Perhaps he creatively expressed and projected his fears in the vain hope that their realization could be averted. In this regard, the Synapse Company probably means the "project" in The Orwell Project as a pun. It's a canny one as an umbrella title for two canny productions.