By Dale King
George Orwell’s novel 1984 is a frightening piece of prose, a literary admonition warning of a perverse future world in which an omniscient state machine, Big Brother, exerts total control over society. To deviate in thought, word or deed could lead to torture or, more likely, death by hanging in a location where audiences gather to watch gleefully.
Or, Big Brother might simply declare you an “un-person,” meaning you never existed.
Interest in the novel has peaked this year with an English stage adaptation of the novel having just completed a run in the U.K. It’s now on Broadway through October.
Another version, one drafted by Andrew White, artistic director of the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, is now being performed at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center. Outré Theatre Company, which has found a home in the recently opened performance venue, delivers a first-rate, thought-provoking retelling of Orwell’s work, though one not for the squeamish.
Director Skye Whitcomb has assembled a skilled cast to bring Orwell’s message to a new generation with the guts and gusto of the author whose book is literally his final earthy testament. He was ill with tuberculosis while writing it, and died in early 1950, about a year after it was published.
Orwell set his novel in the superstate of Oceania, in a world of perpetual war, constant government surveillance and unceasing public manipulation. The Inner Party — a sect that persecutes individualism and independent thinking as “thoughtcrime,” enforced by the Thought Police, rules the land.
Early on, the audience becomes aware of Orwell’s impact. Much of 1984’s vocabulary such as doublethink, newspeak, telescreen and memory hole, have become part of our lexicon, as has the adjective, Orwellian, describing official deception, secret surveillance and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian state.
The protagonist, Winston Smith (portrayed with chilling realism by Seth Trucks) is a member of the Outer Party, who works for the Ministry of Truth, the body responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. His job is to rewrite past media reports so the historical record always supports the party line. Outré’s tech crew uses multimedia, film, and projections to create a world that is scary, but not far removed from our own.
Act I is marred by uncooperative acoustics and a lack of microphones. The audience misses some important set-up dialogue. In Act II, the lines seem more intelligible since O’Brien (aptly and frighteningly played by veteran actor Peter Galman in his first Outré appearance) discourses in a voice that overpowers the high ceilings and gymnasium-like appearance of the performance room.
Smith is a diligent and skillful worker but secretly hates the party and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother.
A glimmer of hope arrives when a fellow worker, Julia (Jennipher Murphy) slips a note into Winston’s hand – a missive that simply says, “I love you.” Cautiously confident that life may change, Winston and Julia meet in a vast, open field, away from telescreens and Thought Police. They meet again to continue their relationship, in an apartment supposedly free of party infiltration.
But all hopes are dashed when O’Brien and Charrington (Murphy Hayes) arrive, slamming the pair to the ground and revealing that they are party insiders who have ratted out the rebel pair. “Have you ever seen the Thought Police?” growls Charrington, clearly indicating he is one.
Act II shows what happens when you turn against the party – and it’s not pretty. Obviously, there’s no “happily ever aftering” in Oceania.
“It’s no surprise that Orwell’s work is as timely and provocative as ever,” said director Whitcomb, who is also Outré’s artistic director. “‘1984’ shows us a society where people have willingly given up control over every aspect of their lives in order to be ‘safe.’ It’s quite frightening, really.”
This show’s cast earns accolades for being placid in what would normally be an anger-inducing universe. Big Brother keeps the promise of no violence, but only if his “laws” are followed.
For defying Big Brother to search for something more than just bare existence, Smith is brutally tortured until finally, in pain and horror, he accepts the party line. In this role, Trucks is exceptional – almost too good, acting out the agony of electric shocks and mental brutality. His character is cool, but far from collected.
Murphy is also top-notch, never revealing if her love note to Winston is true or simply a ploy. The actress plays her part well, but is Julia just playing a part, too? Her true feelings are never revealed.
Hayes is doubleplus-good, to use an Orwellian adjective, as Charrington. And he’s a master of doublespeak, sounding helpful and gracious while exuding evil. His flight to the dark side is something of a surprise.
With his black coat and articulate speaking voice, Galman comes across as a precursor of Darth Vader in spirit and design. As a herald for the party, he is well-spoken and disciplined.
Meredith Bartmon adopts a new, fierce demeanor in her role as Syme, an outspoken party supporter and supposed friend of Smith. Joey De La Rua, an MFA student at Florida Atlantic University in Boca, branches out here as Parsons, the worker who talks big, but grovels childishly when he has to face Big Brother’s iron hand.
1984 is being presented through July 30 at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center, 50 W. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach. For tickets, call 954-545-7800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.