Orwellian: Theater Review

Tasting menu of Orwell excerpts proffers the flavor of the writer with fresh seasonings. 

The writer so seminal that he's become an adjective finds his observations turned into a one-man play in West L.A.

George Orwell remains one of the most cogent writers of the English language in the last century, and his penetrating observations of political behavior and the depredations of ideology, while so specifically trenchant to his own time, surprisingly attains renewed relevance, as Larry Cedar reveals in his brisk one-man show. With permission from the Orwell Estate, Cedar has cherry-picked passages of text from Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Animal Farm (1944) and 1984 (1949) to illustrate Orwell’s preoccupation for the quandary of the average person at the mercy of a manipulative political system unconcerned with individual welfare.

After a somewhat distracting opening monologue delivered by a restaurant lackey working slavish hours for meager pay, an amuse bouche that wilts on the palette despite its thematic pertinence, Cedar snaps us to attention with the memorable exhortation of Old Major to the pigs to unite against their common enemy, the exploitative farmers. He nails the crispness of the satire on Soviet propaganda and conjures a comprehensive memory of the book in a single, concentrated scene.

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The heart of the evening is composed of a series of thoughtfully assembled narrations from 1984, snippets that artfully traverse the story so that the extreme condensation nevertheless follows a nearly seamless trajectory. He evokes the dystopian future society of Big Brother and takes the protagonist Winston Smith on his passage from alienated drone to romantic rebel to broken resistor.

This could well all be considered well-trod territory mired in verities of the Cold War era (which Orwell anticipated before it happened), except that Cedar cannily highlights insights that speak arrestingly to our most immediate contemporary concerns. A discourse on the linguistic imperatives of “Newspeak,” particularly the elimination of excess words, displays remarkable prescience about the fate of language in a world of communication by texting.

So, too, do the piquant observations of how accepting the mass can become of routine intrusions on privacy, and how the loss of intimacy and expression become vehicles for social (or commercial) control. Accounts of detention and torture to extract meaningless confessions hit home as well. A concluding speech about the necessity for generations of effort to effect even incrementally meaningful fundamental change may be depressing, but it reeks of the hard-eyed realism required for such commitment.

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Cedar demonstrates dexterity with suggestions of contradictions in tone: he manages to incarnate both intractable eccentricity and the affectlessness of a true Everyman. Such a talent fits Orwell snugly.

Venue: Porters of Hellsgate at the Odyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles (runs through Dec. 22, in repertory with Sherlock Through the Looking-Glass)

Cast: Larry Cedar

Director: Thomas Bigley

Playwright: George Orwell, adapted by Larry Cedar

Music & sound designer: Nick Neidorf