|Nathan Thomas plays the aggrieved victim of state terrorism in '1984.'|
True, there's a certain dutifulness about the book's case against oppression and a dearth of pure literary magic in the storytelling. But, as has been commonly asserted, no 20th-century writer more than Orwell has had so thorough a set of insights into politics in the modern era. And all of that vision is bluntly, almost obsessively, detailed in "1984."
The production of a stage adaptation that opened Friday night at Indy Convergence ramps up for the stage the novel's atmosphere of paranoia and all-encompassing oppression, which has wowed countless readers for 70 years.
David Ian Lee directs Michael Gene Sullivan's play in a production for the Monument Theatre Company. a new professional venture based here. There's not much let-up in the intensity as the cast of six represents Orwell's vision of absolutism undergirded at every turn by modern technology. The availability of private lives to the state through constant spying is updated here with the ubiquity of iPhones. These devices we can't seem to do without are under state control, like everything else in the dystopian meganation Orwell dubbed Oceania.
The production's dialogue is rapid-fire and usually thundering, punctuated by four Party Members' throwing of metal chairs and hurling to the floor the trailing shackles that bind Winston Smith, the novel's miserable hero. Nathan Thomas gave a highly keyed-up performance that maximized Smith's aggrievement and fear, his facial expression knotted and his voice quavering, pleading, whining. In the leading actor is concentrated all the dire effects of a menacing, all-powerful government. Thomas' performance summed up the victimization of everyone, including those ostensibly favored by Big Brother.
That is evident in the performances of Smith's minders and interrogators, who also wander in and out of the hero's almost hallucinatory memories, enacting them in devastating fragments. The playwright thus effectively represents the erasure of private lives in Oceania. The official bullies are played, in an often alarmingly menacing way, by Riley Leonard, Raven Newbolt, Kim Egan, and Deont'a Stark. The Party Members serve the state through constant dehumanizing pressure on Smith, guided by a frequently heard but never seen "telescreen" announcer (Karen Sternberg).
But there is no one more effective among Smith's tormentors than O'Brien, whose appearance in the second act rings with unmistakable authority as Winston Smith is moved to the final stage of forced ideological conversion. This character, whom Smith had taken for a like-minded lover of liberty, was given an authoritative portrayal by Michael R. Tingley. Though this role is especially crucial to the finishing off of Smith's independence, I would have liked to see its flickers of humanity more evident among the Party Members. One of the fascinating things of any fiction based on a "what-if" premise is how well it makes people caught up in a counterfactual scenario seem like us. Clearly, functionaries of an oppressive state participate in their own dehumanizing, but I think a few more touches of ordinary humanity among the Party Members might have served to make Winston Smith's plight even more moving.
Caleb Clark, who co-founded the company in 2016 with Maverick Schmit, is responsible for "1984"'s design of set, lighting, and sound. All elements worked well together, and were thoroughly taken advantage of in Lee's turbulent but well-knit direction of the show.