1984 Theater Review: Actors’ Gang Stages Oracle Orwell’s Prophetic Thought Crime
[NOTE: This review may contain plot spoilers for those unfamiliar with 1984.]
Halloween is the spookiest time of the year, when scary shows are de rigueur on stage and screen. For example, Oct. 25-31 Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 scream-fest Psycho is being screamed - uh, I mean screened - in Downtown L.A.’s ornate Theatre at Ace Hotel, accompanied by LA Opera Orchestra performing live Bernard Herrmann’s hair-raising score. (See here.)
Do you remember the most terrifying novel you ever read? For me, it wasn’t Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or anything by Stephen King, that “King of Horror.” Rather, it was George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian sci fi saga where Big Brother and the Thought Police watch you through television screens, a chilling idea way ahead of its time when Orwell introduced it in 1948. I was only 12 when I read 1984 during a family jaunt to Europe; I recall it was a Penguin paperback. Orwell’s depiction of a futuristic fascist state was so traumatizing and nightmarish that till this day, many moons later, I haven’t had the courage to turn that book’s daunting pages again.
I did, however, summon the nerve to brave The Actors’ Gang’s latest “thought crime”: a stage version of Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian surveillance state. I also found the guts to review the world premiere of Michael Gene Sullivan’s theatrical iteration of 1984 when The Gang originally world premiered it in 2006. This was during the height of the Iraq War and Bush’s so-called “war on terror.” The production then focused on the plot’s torture aspect, reflecting the “rendition” of suspects who were being kidnapped and dispatched to “black op” sites for “enhanced interrogation” overseas in nations that didn’t have those pesky constitutions guaranteeing human and legal rights.
Now, 13 years later The Gang’s current Orwellian rendering has switched its focus to “‘Fake news’ is the big one, ‘alternate facts,’ everything is rewritten,” Sullivan told me at a reception after the opening of the show wherein the job of protagonist Winston Smith (Will Thomas McFadden) at the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite and re-edit records of the past in order to conform with the Party’s ever-shifting, current version of events. As Orwell wrote in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
But The Gang’s production now on the boards at the Culver City Ivy Substation through Dec. 7 takes matters even further, arguing that this manipulation of reality aims to “make people not believe what they see with their own lying eyes,” said Sullivan, longtime Resident Playwright for the Tony and OBIE award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe (which for some reason has never itself presented his adaptation of 1984, although since premiering it in 2006, The Gang has toured with it internationally, from Buenos Aires to Kiev).
Sullivan went on to discuss what’s inherent in Orwell’s masterpiece about mind control: “Cognitive dissonance, insanity… Everything about Trump is a lying contradiction [such as his being] a billionaire who is the friend of the worker.”
This falsification is front and center in a prison cell confrontation between Winston and the Inner Party member O’Brien (Oscar-winner Tim Robbins, the Artistic Director and co-founder of The Actors’ Gang, who also directs 1984). After indulging in a forbidden love affair with Julia (Lee Margaret Hanson, who like other cast members plays more than one role), the Outer Party member finds the courage to fight Big Brother (it’s amazing what sexual potency can do!), leader of the oppressive system. Winston seeks to join the underground resistance movement called the Brotherhood and led by Emmanuel Goldstein (Tom Szymanski portrays this Leon Trotsky type figure). Believing his superior O’Brien to secretly belong to the opposition, Winston reaches out to him, with dire consequences.
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While torturing the imprisoned Winston, O’Brien calmly seeks to convince the doubting inmate that if the omniscient Party dictates that “two plus two equals five,” why, then it must be so. Although he died in 1950, the oracular Orwell prophesized our own Trumpian age - think of the nonstop lies and contradictions of Rudi Giuliani, despicable Mick Mulvaney and but of course, The Donald himself, and the rest of these Doublethinkers. (How delicious it is to see Robbins, one of Hollywood’s leading actor/activists who has at great personal cost, on- and off- the stage and screen, stood up against war and injustice and for human rights, slyly play a tyrannical Torquemada.)
The play inevitably leads to the torture chamber of Room 101 - where victims must confront their deepest fear, which the all-seeing Big Brother knows.
Another Orwellian reference to our own times is the sudden switch during a Party apparatchik’s speech of who Oceania (where Winston resides) is fighting during the period’s endless wars, blithely changing Eastasia and Eurasia, without even batting an eye or missing a beat. At the after-party Robbins told me when Orwell wrote 1984 he had Russia in mind, which went from being America’s loyal World War II ally to an enemy during the Cold War. Of course, the most recent example of these politically expedient, opportunistic shifting alliances is the bloodKURDling betrayals now underway in Syria.
For the first time this longtime reviewer of shows at The Gang’s Ivy Substation saw seats for ticket buyers on the performance area. The play’s mise-en-scène takes place on a barebones set (designed by Mit Snibbor) with a huge telescreen mounted on the wall wherein live overhead images of the action and what appears to be some original footage in a newsy format are simultaneously seen (projection design by Cihan Sahin). This references Orwell’s startling idea that viewers can be surveilled through TV screens: “Big Brother is watching you.” Sullivan’s script only mentions this techno-innovation in passing but for viewers unfamiliar with Orwell’s work this stunning concept should be emphasized. (Whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose memoir Permanent Record coincidentally recently dropped, claims that nowadays spies can observe users via their computer screens.)
The play inevitably leads to the torture chamber of Room 101 - where victims must confront their deepest fear, which the all-seeing Big Brother knows. Orwell had a lifelong dread of rats, which reappears in his novels. For example, in his heartbreaking 1938 Spanish Civil War account Homage to Catalonia, Orwell wrote he was more afraid of the rodents in the trenches than of Franco’s fascists. (Ironically, the first three digits of the room at Hong Kong’s Hotel Mara, where that modern day Winston Smith Snowden spilled the beans about mass surveillance to journalists, were 101.)
My biggest personal fear, but of course, is having to re-read 1984. Pakistani-American comedian Mona Shaikh immediately understood why, stating that the reason 1984 frightened me so much was because unlike, say, vampire tales, Orwell’s nightmarish vision could actually happen. Although the comic had never read 1984 Mona instinctually understood it, noting: “I grew up under a dictatorship in Pakistan” where citizens wondered “who’s listening? When we were on the phone we couldn’t criticize the government.”
McFadden captures Winston’s desperate defiance, as Hanson does Julia’s smoldering sexuality and her yearning to be personally free - even if it’s only for a moment in Winston’s arms. Tom Szymanski plays another emanation of Winston, as well as Goldstein and Party member No. 1; Hannah Chodos does a gender bender portraying male and female characters; and Bob Turton likewise plays several parts. Robbins, whose offstage voice eerily emanates throughout like a disembodied self watching everyone finally appears onstage after the intermission in Act II. Along with Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s stellar, unforgettable 2017 production of Animal Farm Robbins directs a play that brings our oracle Orwell, who died way too young, back to life, with a skillful dramatization of the work that arguably contains literature’s five most terrifying words in the English language (or Newspeak!):
“Do it to Julia!”
And it’s five words notfour - because Big Brother says so!!! The Gang’s Orwellian dramatization will smash you in the face with the force of a hobnailed boot.
Thought Criminals can watch The Actors’ Gang’s 1984 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays Oct. 27, Nov. 10 and 24 at 2:00 p.m. through Dec. 7 at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. For tickets: (310)838-GANG; https://theactorsgang.com/2019/08/1984-2/. Due to mature content the Thoughtful Police advise: Leave the kiddies at home. (Or else they’ll be traumatized like a certain 12-year-old was many moons ago.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .