Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Opens In Milwaukee: A Review
George Orwell’s dystopian novel of near omniscient totalitarianism has never been more relevant than today. Personal privacy has nearly became an antiquated concept, our civil rights are continually being chipped away, and being refused a job because of something a would-be employer found out about you on Google is a common occurrence. Big Brother is watching, there is no doubt. While Orwell’s dark post-atomic future has yet to become total reality, this brilliant—though some would say subversive—piece of speculative fiction should remain always in the world’s collective consciousness otherwise it runs the risk of transcending into the realm of prophecy.
Project Empty Space Productions and Bad Example Productions have brought Michael Gene Sullivan’s Nineteen Eighty-Four stage adaption to Milwaukee for a three week run at the Alchemist Theatre, directed by David Kaye. Wisconsin Sickness was present for opening night, March 1, 2012.
I was impressed at the production’s attempts to submerge the audience in the world of Oceania. Telescreens, surveillance cameras, and announcements celebrating the glory of Big Brother filled the lobby. When the doors opened, the crowd filed into the tiny theatre. An actor lay on stage sleeping in a small, dirty cell as Big Brother propaganda played over a telescreen. The entire affair was given a voyeuristic quality, all the more unsettling given the nature of the story.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four, this is where the SPOILERS come in (in a very over simplified way, mind you). The play’s protagonist is a man by the name of Winston Smith, a middle class man who works in the “Ministry of Truth” rewriting history at the whims of Big Brother. He secretly despises the Party (the one political power in the superstate of Oceania) and his job. He meets a young woman and the two begin a secret love affair. Eventually their minds turn to rebellion. The play begins just after Winston’s capture, during his subsequent torture and interrogation by a group of Party members. These Party members reenact various scenes from Winston’s testimony as a form of emotional torture, all while a mysterious Voice directs the atrocity.
Christopher Elst portrayed Winston very well, making him seem deplorable, pitiable, and admirable throughout the play. The Party members were portrayed by Marcee Doherty, Erin Hartman, Clayton Hamburg, and Jeremy Eineichner (AKA Jeremy J. Comedian of the comedy troupe The M.U.T.E.S.). This quartet did a wonderful job of portraying a multitude of different characters on stage, and overcame the handicap of wearing the same costumes throughout. Highlights were Hartman’s singing voice, and Hamburg’s enthusiastic sadism. My chief concern early on was that the play would be overwhelming given its heavy subject matter, but just enough comedy from Eineichner and Hamburg, and just enough sex from Doherty and Hartman kept the weight off during most of the play. The character which left the longest lasting impression on me was the Voice, played by Michael Keiley. His cold, emotionless dictation succeeded greatly at capturing the utter lack of humanity present in Big Brother’s criminal dictatorship. At no point did the Voice give Winston any hint of hope or salvation.
My only criticisms are small. A couple of flubbed lines, a few lines delivered flatly, nothing that ruined the overall performance. The final act was plagued by microphone noise, but for me that added to the experience. The play is brutal, you’re in a darkling gem of a theatre like the Alchemist, and you’re watching indie art. Let the mic squeal.
I declare that the play was extremely successful at achieving the goal of the source material. Orwell’s novel is a nightmare of the darkest sort, and just like a vivid night terror the play stayed with me all the following day. I couldn’t stop examining its meaning; I wanted to think about what I had experienced, and what it all meant. When you see this play, be sure to take along a few friends. You’ll need someone to discuss it with on the way home, and probably during lunch at work the next day too.