The following review is based on the Saturday, November 2nd performance of The Actors’ Gang’s production of George Orwell’s “1984” in which Ethan Corn played the parts of Party Member No. 3, Mr. Charrington, and Parsons. Bob Turton usually portrays these roles.
Not long before his death from tuberculosis at the young age of 46, George Orwell, the internationally acclaimed novelist, and to some a soothsayer, proffered this chilling quote to a reporter in his last-ever interview as he struggled to breathe and maintain his equanimity:
“[In reference to ‘1984’] This is the direction the world is going in at the present time. In our world, there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement. There will be no loyalty except loyalty to the party. But always there will be the intoxication of power. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”
There have been several instances since the Industrial Revolution began in 1760 when individuals could point out parallels between the events in “1984” and reality. However, as technology and social media continue to burgeon and become more refined, there is no era more reflective of what was believed to be only a work of fiction than modern-day. The “Big Brother” coalition of high-grade drones and satellites, cameras on every street corner, facial recognition software, and an ideologically adversarial public who monitor each other’s thoughts and opinions — especially online – have eerily become the real-life equivalent of what now, in retrospect, was an admonition first published in 1949.
Since first staging Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaptation in 2006, director Tim Robbins (who also acts on stage for the first time in many years) and The Actors’ Gang at their theater in Culver City, CA, have again poignantly reminded us of why the plot of “1984” is so perilously familiar. Similarly, they educate how and why a technocracy’s hunger for power and the obsession with control can very well lead to tyranny, the eradication of the individual, and the scrutiny of not only speech, but the seeds of thought – the most significant. That’s what happens in the perpetually at war nation of “Oceania,” specifically at the Ministry of Love, where we feel weighed down by the reign of totalitarianism from the vantage point of one #6079 Winston Smith who is asked to “be precise” as he is being interrogated for two hours. Entries in Smith’s diary are read, he is asked about his role in the insurgent Brotherhood, and is pressed to recount his love affair with the free-spirited Julia. The ever-glaring “Big Brother,” as represented by a disembodied voice emanating from six screens, as well as four present party members, amount to a formidably Mephistophelian force, which up until Winston’s momentary show of defiance, had bludgeoned to death the very semblance of the human condition.
The stripped-down, in-the-round staging designed by Mit Snibbor and constructed by Chris Bisbano enables us to see the characters, for all their good or bad, roam around without any inhibitions or concealment. Cihan Sahin’s projections feature an omniscient eye watching the stage, in addition to ominously nebulous images, and the playing of news announcements (edited by Paul Hogan) publicizing Oceania’s triumphs as the party members roar with approval. It should also be said that Tess Vidal’s costumes are excellent at demonstrating the contrast between the perfectly fitted and absolutely wrinkle-free dark gray suits of the party members and Winston’s disheveled white under-shirt, dress shirt, black slacks, and his blackened feet soles. Bosco Flanagan’s lighting emphasizes this dichotomy, and David Robbins’ stereoscopic sound design further enhances the disorienting nightmare that Winston finds himself in.
Actor Will Thomas McFadden’s portrayal of the exhausted Winston Smith feels as vulnerable as it should be vis-à-vis his diametrically crushing oppressors. We witness Winston’s bewilderment, angst, and how overwrought he becomes as his interrogators move in synchronized lock step around him, each occupying a spot in the stage’s four corners, marching and turning with robotic precision. Winston’s governmental job, as we discover, was to “fix” the past by editing old videos, books, and articles so that they would align with the sentiment of the present. McFadden is tremendous at presenting what Winston thinks is unimpeachably real, inclusive of detailing the nuances of his vocation, or confidently claiming which region he believes Oceania is warring against (Eurasia rather than Eastasia); that is, until he is incessantly told he’s insane insofar that he begins to even doubt that 2+2 equals 4. Through McFadden’s agonized expressions and fatigued movements, we’re saddened to discern how Winston’s mind is being nefariously overruled.
In compelling Winston to retrace his treasonous steps, the party members often also morph into the individuals whom Winston knew and interacted with. The most important to him was the unconventional Julia whose flaws made her beautiful. Lee Margaret Hanson depicts not only the sinister Party Member No. 2, but Julia, who worked in the porno section of novel writing, and is unencumbered by any filters of language and behavior. Hanson exhibits great skill in going back and forth between her personas, making the audience oppose her one moment and find her refreshingly likable and sympathetic the next.
As mostly Party Member No. 4, Hannah Chodos is calculating and almost maniacal at times — notably when explaining “newspeak,” defined as a language of words that “narrows the range of human thought” — which the talented actress gets across with a staunch commitment to her character. The same can be said for Tom Szymanski and Ethan Corn who bring a scary poise that bursts into a hyper-intensity as Party Members No. 1 and No. 3, respectively. Moreover, Szymanski also shines for portraying a mirror image of the warm and well-intentioned Winston and Corn earns some laughs for his render of the blubbering Parsons, an innocuous but heavily brain-washed citizen who is way past the point of redemption.
Last but not least is Tim Robbins, whose direction of the production not only effortlessly builds to a rattling, nail-biting climax, but whose presence as the mysterious O’Brien pushes “1984” to great heights as the ultimate moral lesson told on stage. It is in Act II where the debonair and platinum-bearded Robbins suddenly appears with his matching, slicked-back hair, as he moves with a measured gait out of the darkness and into the light, smiling assuredly as he does at the hapless Winston. What makes Robbins’ representation of O’Brien so terrifying is that he conveys his diabolically unwavering faith in the state to McFadden’s Winston in such a pleasant and agreeable manner, using a comforting rhythm of speech as he stalks his prey.
It is, moreover, via Robbins’ O’Brien that the concepts of doublethink (reconciling two contradictory notions), thought manipulation, and torture are further underscored as tools to confuse and convert the heretic’s foundation of ideas before disposing of him (e.g., “We make the brain perfect before we blow it out”). Without a doubt, as a seeming highest authority of Big Brother, Robbins gives a spellbinding performance.
Needless to say, The Actors’ Gang’s production “1984” receives the highest recommendation for incorporating visuals and sounds to give extra meaning to Orwell’s words. This all transpires as the audience watches the gripping inquisition of Winston Smith and learns of the events that caused his beleaguerment and made him an object of interest to a country that opposes any dissension. If nothing else, one would hope that this play inspires a call to action among people to sometimes “unplug” from social media, engage in more self-contemplation, do their own independent research, and stand firm with their individual identities — adamant about their freedom to demur — against intrusions by the corporatocracy.
For more information about The Actors’ Gang’s production of George Orwell’s “1984,” which runs through December 7th, please visit: