EmptyVenue: Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater, Los Angeles (Through July 6).
Under Tim Robbins' intense direction, George Orwell's 1948 nightmare about democracy's descent into the hell of Big Brother government, mind control and absurdist cruelty erupts into reality on the REDCAT stage, using Michael Gene Sullivan's brilliantly condensed script to tell in flashbacks the familiar story of illicit love in a terrible future with power, pace, and horror.
Sullivan is not afraid to use Orwell's sparse, intoxicating language to maximum effect, while Robbins' vision of a chained Winston Smith (Cameron Dye) undergoing two hours of questioning and periodic electroshock treatment sends shocks into the audience throughout the course of the evening.
Robbins' own political convictions don't too obtrusively impact the drama until the final 30 minutes, when party leader O'Brien, played by Keythe Farley with the suave manners of a game show host but a disconcerting lack of presence, institutes the final phase of the proceedings as if he were "Law & Order's" Jack McCoy hot on the trail of justice and the accompanying allocution.
Once excerpts from the opposition writings against Big Brother are read by Brian T. Finney as the flashback Smith, with considerable panache but to such length that it seems an endless loop is in the making, political inferences to 2008 begin to lessen the power of the dramatic punches. In fact, as the evening wears on, it is impossible not to wonder whether this is just the type of heavy-handed, black-and-white adaptation Big Brother himself would produce.
Nor is it clear whether in the final scene, in which O'Brien interrogates Winston -- even though it is done with a nearly lethal, mind-scouring combination of physical and emotional torture -- is meant to be so matter of fact relative to the nightmarish moods of what have gone before it. Whatever the intent, Farley's lack of the presence that O'Brien seemingly must have to symbolize the ultimate corruption of power affects the final impact.
The impressive cast works hard and successfully to keep the momentum going for the full two hours, with Dye's Winston a virtuoso tour de force who at the end looks so convincingly wasted that it must be impossible for the actor to survive even one performance without risking not only his health and sanity but also his very life.
Pathetically hopping on damaged legs, Dye creates a ghostly white, wasted character out of a German Expressionist silent film, or perhaps a concentration camp, his pink-rimmed eyes bulging from their sockets as if he had become one of the scared, ravaging rats that are his greatest fear.
As Winston's lover Julia, Kaili Hollister throws herself into the role of a desperately freedom-seeking, sexually unleashed woman with admirable energy and a subtly nuanced, distancing lack of emotional despair. As the flashback Smith, Finney is a marvel of unfolding courage and desire. Hollister, Finney, V.J. Foster and Steven M. Porter all take on multiple roles as both specific and anonymous party members with such impressive care, intensity and imagination that they sent realistic shivers through the theater.
The REDCAT is the perfect venue for "1984," its vast, nerves-exposed space, like a planetarium without the projector, allowing for plenty of multimedia special effects to spy on the ill-fated trysts between Winston and Julia and to create eerie, otherworldly lighting, musical and sound effects heightening the play's intrinsic fear and loathing.
Cast: Cameron Dye, Keythe Farley, Brian T. Finney, Kaili Hollister, V. J. Foster, Steven M. Porter. Director: Tim Robbins. Playwright: Michael Gene Sullivan (adapted from George Orwell's novel). Scenic Designers: Richard Hoover, Sibyl Wickersheimer. Costume Designer: Allison Leach. Lighting Designer: Bosco Flanagan. Sound Designer: David Robbins.