New Review: 1984 at 59E59 Theaters

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1984

For Back Stage.

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Here’s the review:

A quarter-century after the year 1984, the harrowing dystopian universe depicted in George Orwell’s novel can still chill the spine. Yet Godlight Theatre Company’s production of Alan Lyddiard’s stage adaptation, directed by Joe Tantalo, is also curious. If you can recall America (or London, where the book is set) before 1984, there’s something quaint about ideas like Big Brother, doublethink, thought crime – as if they’re silly goblins in a modernist parody of Poe. In the Internet era, when anyone can think anything and publish it, what’s this hysteria about man being reduced to an unthinking, unfeeling, obedient automaton?

But then you start to think about it twice. We can turn on the TV and actually watch Big Brother. Doublethink may not be part of our daily speech, but groupthink unquestionably is. We can’t convict a man for having thoughts, but in a war on terror – well, can we?

Given Maruti Evans’ claustrophobic production design (actors idle in corners or the theatre’s entrance area when not performing), Tantalo makes the most of minimalism. And anyway, 1984 shouldn’t be an orgy of special effects, though Andrew Recinos’ original music and sound design can be appropriately unnerving. As in the novel, our main focus is on Winston (hollow-eyed, haunted Gregory Konow), a man already withered to a final shred of individuality.

Because Winston never leaves the small, square performance area, the other characters chosen by Lyddiard for this dramatization must enter this tiny white space to interact with him. There’s Syme (bookwormish Aaron Paternoster), the Newspeak lexicographer vaporized for “knowing too much” Parsons (earnest Nick Paglino), the dimwitted party acolyte betrayed by his children; Goldstein (Trotskyesque Michael Shimkin), the party enemy; Charrington (dotty Michael Tranzilli), the antique-shop owner and ostensible prole; O’Brien (winsome Dustin Olson), the government agent who entraps Winston into articulating revolutionary thoughts; and Julia (sensuous Enid Cortes), the woman who offers Winston a chance to love before their souls are crushed by the forces of Big Brother.

There’s so much that’s smart about this production. Having the ever-running telescreens played by four women (Deanna McGovern, Katherine Boynton, Sammy Tunis, and Scarlett Thiele), for example, has a quality of real subversion. And Lyddiard and Tantalo don’t make it easy for these actors, who utter long strings of seemingly innocuous words, creating a torturous white-noise hum. The play’s concluding scenes, in which O’Brien begins administering the final solution to Winston – culminating in a visit to the dreaded Room 101 – aren’t just intense; they suddenly seem not quite so unfathomable.