1984 Spends Too Much Time Telling Rather Than Showing

Cameron William Davis, Danielle Kristen Bunch, Alan Titel, Giovanni Sandoval and Blake Alexander Weir in 1984.
Cameron William Davis, Danielle Kristen Bunch, Alan Titel, Giovanni Sandoval and Blake Alexander Weir in 1984. Photo by Pin Lim
The setup:

Before everyone gets ahead of themselves and notes that George Orwell’s 1984 is the eerily perfect play to be producing in our present era of presidential “alternative facts,” remember that theater companies plan their seasons way in advance and therefore ahead of this most recent election outcome.

Not to say that this story doesn’t serve up some fabulous zeitgeist zingers. It’s almost impossible not to see similarities between our present situation and Orwell’s dystopian tale (nearly 70 years old) of Big Brother watching us, systemic fear/hatred against foreigners, a self-proclaimed infallible government and a Ministry of Truth that dictates what everyone must believe as true, facts be damned.

But then this wouldn’t be the first era in which Orwell’s work had disturbing resonance. He was already putting down the roots of the novel that would become 1984 when in 1944 he wrote a letter about the lack of objective truth in both Stalin’s and Hitler’s reigns. The Nixon administration also got the 1984 comparison nod because of its less than truthful policy of war in Vietnam and its attempts at controlling media messages in the Watergate scandal.

Point is, Orwell was onto something that unfortunately seems destined to remain relevant. So relevant that a multimedia version of the play has now been brought to Broadway after recent hit runs in London and Los Angeles. However, that intense production (one that recently made four audience members faint from shock), presently in previews on the Great White Way, is not the version on offer in Houston. Instead, it’s Michael Gene Sullivan’s decade-old adaptation that Obsidian Theatre is staging.

Sullivan gives us Orwell’s story in reverse, using narrative flashbacks to tell the tale of citizen turned rebel Winston Smith as he's interrogated by Party Members. It’s a version that incorporates many of the famously disturbing elements in Orwell’s story – Thought Police, spying telescreens, newspeak – but it’s also a version that too often dulls those elements by telling, rather than showing, us the story.

The execution:

Dear theater makers — giving audience members badges to wear that say “Party Member XXXX,” throwing up a couple of fake security cameras and keeping the houselights on throughout the performance does not make this an immersive theater production. Although it’s understandable why director Tom Stell would want us to feel as involved in the show as possible, when we’re faced with a script that for almost the entire show consists of a diary being read aloud to us.

“How did it begin?” an invisible offstage voice demands of prisoner Winston Smith (Allen Titel) as he stands on a small black platform in the middle of a bare, muddy-looking stage. Smith, beaten and in tattered clothes, is surrounded by four Party Members (Cameron William Davis, Danielle Kristen Bunch, Giovanni Sandoval and Blake Alexander Weir) looking, oddly, like a Gap ad in matching polo shirts, chinos (or beige skirt) and white sneakers. The “it” being referred to is the crime of falling in love with a woman and their together attempting to rebel against the wildly oppressive government under which they live.

We learn about all Winston has done via the diary he kept of his actions. A diary the four Party Members read and act out as a kind of narrative confessional at the behest of the disembodied voice’s command. We learn of Winston’s doubts, his questioning, his romance and his rebellion as the four minions take turns standing in for the events, like a kind of semi-instructive amateur sketch troupe.

Winston chimes in himself occasionally (when he’s not being beaten or electrocuted for misbehaving) to tell us about this or that long-winded dream full of metaphor and poetic pathos. But what may be beautiful on the page is rendered tedious on the stage. Let’s be honest: Have you ever really been all that interested in listening to someone’s weird-ass dream for more than a minute or so?

We know we should feel more urgently upset about what’s befalling Winston and his lady love. We know we should recoil in horror from the Party Members and all they believe in. But all the play-acting, which sometimes veers oddly comical, results in a numbness that we can’t shake. Sullivan, it seems, has taken the oomph out of Orwell.

Things do pick up steam near the end of the play when the flashbacks stop and the real meaning of the whole torture exercise is revealed. If you haven’t read the book or don’t remember it clearly, I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say that the idea that no one is to be trusted has never been more true.

Also helping this production along in spite of itself is a uniformly hard-working cast. Party Members Bunch, David and Sandoval do a solid job flitting from one character to the next, with special mention to Weir, who especially shines in all his incarnations. As friend turned, well, something else, Chris Gibson as O’Brien exudes cool exactitude that finally brings the much-needed chills to this show. As Winston, Titel should receive some kind of special award for best tortured character, as for almost two hours, this poor actor is beaten and zapped in all sorts of manners without ever once making us question the believability of his pain. It’s an exhausting performance, one we can only hope he leaves at the stage door.

The verdict:

Apparently since last November 8, sales of Orwell’s 1984 have once again topped the bestseller lists across the country. This even though many deep thinkers maintain that it’s actually King Lear this administration more closely resembles, but that’s another subject entirely. Point is, everything old is new again and in this case, germane once more.

With this in mind, if Sullivan’s version is all that we get, then I suppose it’s better to be reminded of what could be rather than not to think about it at all. But given the importance of Orwell’s warning and the too-close-for-comfort trends we see happening in our highest office day after day, we can sure wish that this 1984 delivery method packed more of a needed punch.

1984 continues through June 17 at Obsidian Theatre, 3522 White Oak Drive. For tickets visit $15-$30.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman