The Actors’ Gang founder Tim Robbins in 2006 directed Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaptation of the George Orwell masterpiece 1984 to acclaim and an international tour. At that time, it was recontextualized to reflect our national shame over Abu Ghraib and the Bush-era policies of “enhanced interrogation.”
In the new revival, the events of the story are told in retrospect during just such an interrogation between Big Brother and thwarted rebel Winston Smith. Sullivan’s approach may have been more cogent in the Bush era but seems less so now, when the government has endorsed putting babies in cages at the border. Robbins’ brisk and inventive direction of his capable cast, including himself as the nefarious O’Brien, elevates this minimalist production in the round. But the adaptation obscures the material’s humanity, leaving Orwell’s timeless observations on authoritarianism and its stealthy impact on democracies with little emotional context to buoy them.
As the lights come up on a square space surrounded by the audience, Winston (Will Thomas McFadden) is being pilloried, recounting his thought crimes to four brutes dressed in costume designer Tess Vidal’s tailored suits. We hear of the drab, routine lives of proles and their dedication to Oceania, especially in the ongoing war with Eurasia, or Eastasia, an enemy that keeps changing, though no one seems to notice as they vigorously cheer on news updates on projection designer Cihan Sahin’s video screens flanking the stage.
At the heart of the story is Winston’s love of Julia (Lee Margaret Hanson), a free spirit who gleefully thumbs her nose at convention and especially at Big Brother, which is present as a voice emanating from alternate corners of the space, riveting the ensemble’s attention and pivoting them equally to audiences on all four sides.
We learn that Winston and Julia carried on a relationship in a discreet hideaway over a shop. The scenes between the two are dramatized in flashback, employing a stand-in for Winston (Tom Szymanski). Doing so drains the heart from those scenes and, subsequently, the play. The couple offer their services to Goldstein, reputed leader of a rebellion, and are eventually discovered, arrested and tortured.
Despite its critical acclaim, Sullivan’s adaptation, compared to the recent Broadway production starring Tom Sturridge, Olivia Wilde and Reed Birney, tapers immediacy and feeling by telling the story in retrospect. The in-the-round interrogation-room setting separates the action from life, drowning urgency in stand-and-read proclamations under bright white light.
As 1984 moves into its second act, Robbins finally appears in a dark suit, calmly questioning Winston as he walks the perimeter of the space. The last time Robbins appeared on this stage was in a 2005 production of The Guys. Today, he is tall and silver-maned, sufficiently patrician, calculating and prideful in a role that affords him limited range.
Winston’s final confrontation with his worst fear — a rat cage placed on his head — gives the audience a close-up view of him on the video screens, overcome with terror. Despite McFadden’s commitment to the scene, it is stirring but less than climactic. As Winston, he is called upon to carry the play, presenting a defiant persona throughout. But emotional curtailment inherent to Sullivan’s adaptation leaves the actor hamstrung with a narrow expressive spectrum.
As Julia and Party Member No. 2, Hanson provides whatever emotional ballast exists in the production, shifting artfully between her roles, from insouciant to iron-skinned. Bob Turton is maniacal as Party Member No. 3, with his preternaturally expressive face, and cluelessly hilarious as fellow worker Parsons who, in the end, blithely marches off to his own execution.
If Sullivan’s text is sedentary, Robbins’ direction is the opposite, moving his cadre in a complex choreography around Winston, while they intermittently snap to attention at broadcasts and Big Brother’s voice. Tension is maintained throughout, which may or may not be a good thing.
Orwell’s novel has only become more relevant in our era, particularly the truth-obliterating concept of doublespeak, a language in which most politicians appear to be fluent. More to the point is the shifting definition of allies and enemies as Oceania’s battlefield opponent keeps changing, echoing the “forever war” against terrorism and, more recently, the government’s view of Kurds, who went from being allies to “not angels” after a single phone call. But although 1984 contains a checklist of warnings and predictions for our times, a presentation as unmoving as this one puts Orwell’s prescient parable in danger of being reduced to just that, a checklist.
Venue: The Actors’ Gang, Los Angeles
Cast: Tim Robbins, Hannah Chodos, Lee Margaret Hanson, Will Thomas McFadden, Tom Szymanski and Bob Turton
Director: Tim Robbins
Playwright: Michael Gene Sullivan, from the novel by George Orwell
Set designer: Mit Snibbor
Costume designer: Tess Vidal
Lighting designer: Bosco Flanagan
Sound designer: David Robbins
Projection designer: Cihan Sahin
Presented by The Actors’ Gang