A CurtainUp Review
1984 seems so ubiquitous by now that it's hard to imagine anyone not familiar with the story of Winston Smith, an Everyman trapped in a soulless dystopian future. Even his last name, Smith, shouts Joe Average. Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength run the play's slogans. Human emotion has been almost crushed out of existence, but Winston is determined to harbor some small shred of humanity. He begins an illicit love affair, starts a diary, tries to seek out like-minded citizens who also hate Big Brother. Unfortunately, his efforts come to a vicious and sudden stop. The authorities arrest him and, not satisfied with mere torture, are determined to completely reprogram his traitorous brain.
The production, while visually appealing, is almost too crowded for the tiny space at 59E59. The four women, who play the omnipresent Telescreens (used to spy on the populace), move around the playing square and station themselves at the four corners, thereby breaking the stage's continuity. An actual screen would be just as if not more effective. The short scenes which introduce various secondary characters break up the central Winston/Julia arc, and the lighting; and the sound effects, while innovative and completely in tune with the spirit of the play, often overpower the human element. An apt metaphor, I realize, but still distracting.
This gets back to my comment that the piece is best when it's simplest. . .when the production is stripped of the extra people, the extra effects, and it's just two people in a cramped space, attempting to connect on any human level—— and that's the metaphor that counts. Gregory Konow as Winston and Enid Cortes as Julia have a simple and lovely chemistry onstage. Dustin Olsen as O'Brien is the other standout. His torture scene with Winston is far more effective, and powerful, than all the narrative and backstory leading up to it. In fact, the message of the novel and the play can be derived from that one scene alone. To be sure, torture scenes are obviously difficult, especially these days with all the talk of waterboarding in the news. However, this particular torture scene is well-balanced and emotionally compelling without being graphic. The two men never even touch.
Considering the power of the Winston/O'Brien scene had me almost wish Joe Tantalo had skipped more of the first part of the story, though I admit cutting most of the backstory from a play that runs 85 minutes is a little extreme. But then the directorial business was also extreme enough to become distracting during the narrative scenes. Still, consider my quibbles minor since Mr. Tantalo and his actors ultimately give us an accurate rendering of the novel's spirit.
Editor's Note: The Godlight Theater Company has built a reputation in the New York's Off-Broadway theater world for producing difficult to stage works that offer what one of our critics called "stealth commentary" about the human condition. Here are links to their previously reviewed productions:
You might also want to read Curtainup's review of 1984 and Animal Farm that were part of the 2004 Orwell Project.