George Orwell's 1984
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 22, 2009
As we left 59E59 after Godlight Theatre Company's presentation of George Orwell's 1984, my companion said, "I think that was the most intense 80 minutes I've ever spent in a theatre."
I concur. Thinking about the experience now, I've concluded that the extreme level of intensity—and potency—of Joe Tantalo's production of the classic novel is directly related to his choice to eschew high-tech effects and rely on the most basic and fundamental theatrical elements to tell Orwell's frightening cautionary story. This is a 1984 without television cameras or screens, without futuristic gadgets or gewgaws, without—for the most part—scenery. Maruti Evans's masterful production design consists of a claustrophobically small square space—a shadow box? a boxing ring?—which is bounded on all sides by the audience; there are a couple of chairs, and everything else that defines or divides the space happens with light. Andrew Recinos's original score/soundscape complements and completes the stark, restrictive vision of a world where will has been systematically drained away.
Alan Lyddiard's dramatization of 1984 (written in 2001) is similarly spare and severe. The setting is Orwell's post-World War II vision of London in 1984, in the throes of a dictatorship ruled by an entity called Big Brother. Citizens are watched almost all the time via "Telescreens." Big Brother's tenets ("War is peace / Freedom is slavery / Ignorance is strength") are being drilled into their consciousnesses. Language and history are being degraded and rewritten; one of the lowly workers involved in this project is our protagonist and hero, Winston. In brief spurts of scenes we meet him and his circle, including a co-worker named Parsons who is startlingly proud of his seven-year-old daughter for being a snitch—one of the keys to success in Big Brother's world is to say something when you see something that might offend the ruling class. We also meet Julia, a free-spirited young woman with whom Winston falls in love, and O'Brien, a colleague who becomes Winston and Julia's ally when they decide they must rebel against Big Brother's tyranny.
The plot stays steadily focused on the consequences of this rebellion. I don't want to give too much away, but I will note that I found strong resonance in a couple of places where I wasn't expecting it. Winston's fervor to overthrow the totalitarian regime feels dangerously like what we label terrorism today. And the subtle, horrific truth at the center of Big Brother's regime felt to me too close to recent American history for comfort: "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."
Tantalo makes the story unfold just a few feet away from each audience member. Instead of literal Telescreens he uses four actresses (at the four points of the square stage) constantly surveilling, and occasionally communicating with, Winston and the other characters. There are no real transitions between scenes, only sharp blackouts. The pace is taut and relentless. The ambience of Big Brother's state is pervasive and palpable and uncomfortable.
It's a 1984 that prods and jolts the intellect more than it touches the heart. The prescience of Orwell's work is kind of breathtaking; we need to be prodded and jolted like this.
A strong cast serves Tantalo's vision well. The standout is undoubtedly Nick Paglino as Parsons; he has a remarkable scene with Winston near the end of the play that's as compelling as anything I've seen in the theatre in months. Gregory Konow's Winston is more reticent and unknowable than we like our heroes to be, while Enid Cortes's Julia is an unpredictable breath of fresh air. Dustin Olson gives a solid performance as O'Brien. Katherine Boynton, Deanna McGovern, Scarlett Thiele, and Sammy Tunis embody the Telescreens with splendid precision. Aaron Paternoster, Michael Shimkin, and Michael Tranzilli round out the fine ensemble.
This production marks the latest in a string of brilliant, economical translations to the stage of pertinent contemporary literature by Tantalo and Godlight. (Some of the others are: Slaughterhouse-Five, Blindness, Fahrenheit 451, and A Clockwork Orange.) Godlight is truly one of New York indie theater's landmark companies. Check this remarkable work out, and watch for new challenging pieces to come.