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Tessa Auberjonois and Adrian LaTourelle
in 1984
(Photo © Chris Bennion)
Originally published 55 years ago, George Orwell's 1984 remains terrifying. While any play should have its own inherent integrity regardless of its source work, the Empty Space's new adaptation of Orwell's novel appreciates the fact that Big Brother is already an icon. Director Allison Narver's multimedia production is a fitting contemporary vehicle for Orwell's vision of the future.

The play presents a smothering, totalitarian society whose citizens live in one of the world's perpetually warring superpowers, Oceana. They are bombarded with government propaganda such as "Ignorance is strength" and "War is peace." True companionship is prevented and one is forbidden from expressing dissatisfaction or criticizing the government. Anyone who represents an aberration is punished with torture and subsequent death; even as the protagonist, Winston Smith, keeps a secret journal confessing his contempt for Big Brother (the government's leader), he writes that he will eventually be killed for his actions.

Narver makes this stifling vision tangible by presenting the material in a full-throttle, highly innovative way. She combines video imagery, projections, and music with playwright Wayne Rawley's text to create a relentless sense of oppression within the confines of the small theater; even Winston's thoughts are projected. The use of videography (by Web Crowell and Bob Bejan) is a faithful interpretation of the novel, in which the characters live under constant video surveillance and are subjected to ubiquitous televised propaganda.

The projected imagery serves another function: pre-taped performances are integrated with those of the live cast of three to create the sense of a large, intricate society while preserving the isolation of the individual. After we have spent considerable time alone with Winston (Adrian LaTourelle), the mere appearance of a second live character, Julia (Tessa Auberjonois) is a striking moment.

The forbidden romance between these two is the only release from their dehumanizing world. The actors portray the affair with a palpable ardency and Auberjonois does a particularly nice job of transitioning Julia from a militant drone to a real, breathing soul. Winston and Julia have most of their trysts on a burgundy and yellow bed -- symbolically, this is one of the production's few bursts of color. Narver and set designer Jay McAleer exploit such dramatic symbols for all their worth; the bed, which later becomes a torture device after Winston and Julia are captured, sits in the middle of a red circle as if to tell us that the couple's every movement still takes place in the eye of a video camera.

The production succeeds in visualizing the drama of the book while remaining faithful to the text, but such fidelity presents an unavoidable problem: 1984 is a book of ideas, and some of them are apparently best expressed on the page. A large chunk of the second act consists of physical torture interspersed with a long conversation between Winston and his torturer, O'Brien (David Pichette). As admirable as both the ideas and the performances are, this extended scene lacks trajectory and is not as captivating as the first act.

David Pichette and Adrian LaTourelle
in 1984
(Photo © photo Chris Bennion)
Despite that structural problem, the themes of 1984 are so relevant to a contemporary American audience that the production was almost an inevitable choice. One could argue that paranoid readers have always found prescience in Orwell's story and that it's not any more or less relevant today than it has been. Still, it's amazing how many of the lines in the play -- taken directly from Orwell's book -- could have come out of yesterday's news. In one simultaneously chilling and funny moment, O'Brien says that "the proletariat will never revolt" because they are too busy. How often have we heard some version of that?

Such parallels could easily give the play a preachy tone, but Rawley and Narver present the audience with more ambiguities than absolutes. The fact that the characters often spout incongruities saves the production from heavy-handedness. For instance, Julia talks about her grandfather only to insist immediately thereafter that he never existed; for all her desire to rebel, she can't understand the extent to which she has been manipulated.

The control over people that's seen in the play is perhaps even more frightening than the physical brutality because it presents such an obvious parallel to contemporary culture. Julia and Winston are eventually tortured into betraying each other and into believing even the most transparent of lies, a terrifying ending that raises a question for the audience: If everything worthwhile was taken away, would we even remember what we had lost? Throughout the play, recordings tell Winston, "You have it good." Advertising agencies and political campaign managers alike understand that such spin can be more powerful than reality. "Ignorance is strength," indeed.

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