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The term "Orwellian" is often used to refer to situations in which authority figures like police or even employers poke their noses into people's private concerns, root out potentially incriminating information and then use that knowledge to manipulate somebody. To many people, that might constitute blackmail. To others, it's simply life in the 1990s.
But to George Orwell, the author whose work inspired the term, such a state of affairs was predictable as early as 1948, when the British novelist penned his vintage tale 1984. The LIDA Project, a local experimental theater company, seems the perfect troupe to attempt a dramatization of Orwell's novel. After all, as its every playbill states, the troupe's name has been taken from a Soviet-made device allegedly designed to control brain activity. Who better to stage a story about the nightmarish environment of Winston (Guy Williams), the last man on earth who dares to think his own thoughts and feel his own feelings?
Fusing Orwell's genius with LIDA's unique brand of theatricality, artistic director Brian Freeland has created an engrossing adaptation of Orwell's book. The simply titled Eighty-Four proves to be a winning piece of theater.
Staged against the ubiquitous face of Big Brother (Dan Hiester), which is often projected onto a "telescreen" that dominates the rear wall of the space, Winston's story unfolds over three acts. The first reveals the early forces that have shaped his character, like witnessing government police shoot his mother in the back of the neck. "They always shoot you in the back of the neck," Winston's recorded voice says as the event is replayed before us in slow motion. Making further use of voiceovers to propel his narrative, Freeland quickly transports us to Winston's adult years in the second act, which portrays Winston resisting assimilation with a society of robotized humans. Finally, in Act Three, Winston is arrested and tortured, and we witness the horrific actions of a political party bent on controlling the world by dictating the thoughts of others.
Freeland maximizes his resources, transforming the tiny garage-turned-theater into an arena of sights and sounds that enhance the author's chilling words: "War Is Peace...Ignorance Is Strength... Freedom Is Slavery." Calling upon his talented cast to subjugate their artistic egos to the author's work, Freeland succeeds in capturing much of Orwell's message while also putting his own stamp on it.
It's easy enough for a director to achieve the feel of a technology-driven society that's out of control--that concept is familiar to anyone who programs a VCR, browses the Web or navigates voicemail. But many directors overproduce such plays, emphasizing science-fiction themes and littering the stage with television monitors rather than focusing on the story itself.
Not so with Freeland's version of Orwell's book. For beyond the author's descriptions of a techno-crazed world lies a poignant, human story, and Freeland has chosen to concentrate on Winston's character development to the exclusion of slick production techniques. The show is not without several striking and provocative images, but each is there to underscore Winston's odyssey, not to exist simply for its own sake.
Capitalizing on the flexibility of his theater (the last three LIDA productions have utilized completely different seating and stage configurations), Freeland has confined his actors' endeavors to a gray box that alternately serves as a prison cell, a cafeteria, Winston's living quarters and the infamous Room 101--the torture chamber where dissenters are sent for their final "correction." The cast members, clad in navy-blue jumpsuits, periodically rearrange several large wooden cubes to deftly differentiate each scene.
Freeland's spare use of several well-placed video images has an enlarging effect on both the stage itself and on our imaginations. For instance, when Winston is arrested, he is told that what has betrayed him to police is not the testimony of any one person, but the actual presence of Big Brother in his own home. Winston seems perplexed by this until one of the black-helmeted robocops removes a small picture that has hung from the wall, revealing Hiester's mug staring at us from a hitherto unseen video monitor.
Clever stage tricks are also used to expand the playing space. Stark lighting illuminates several scenes from side entrances, and actors who are on stage interact with offstage characters who, if they are seen at all, appear only on the video screen. There's even a cafeteria scene where food and drink are impersonally passed to Winston by gloved hands emerging from small holes in the walls. The effect is to enlarge the scope of the play's environment while deepening the sense of atmospheric sterility.
Freeland orchestrates his most effective moment when Winston makes love to Julia (Catherine E. Worster). Two policemen kick down a panel located at the top of the rear stage wall, startling the audience with a loud bang, and the Thought Police subsequently enter the apartment via ropes hung from the theater's ceiling. Instantly, the 35-seat playhouse seems to double in size.
Equally riveting is another moment near the end of the play when Winston, strapped in a chair, endures his final torture: A cage containing two white rats is positioned over his head. With the strategic placement of a line of dialogue (explaining that the rodents can't touch Winston's face unless a special trap door is tripped by his interrogator), Freeland allays our concerns for the performer's safety and simultaneously holds us rapt for the remainder of the play.
But though the show is enhanced by effective theatrics, the production is propelled largely by Williams's mature portrayal. On stage for virtually the entire drama, the young actor runs the gamut of emotions, from quiet, sensitive moments with Worster to episodes of sheer terror while serving as rat bait. In between, we identify with his well-crafted portrait of a man who can't bear to abandon the truth that he sees in front of him in favor of the totalitarian state's lies. Even as the word "victory" is chanted louder and louder throughout the theater (in direct antithesis to what happens to our hero), we know that both Winston and Williams have fought their respective good fights--battles made possible by Freeland's imaginative efforts.
Eighty Four, through November 29 at the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre, 80 South Cherokee Street, 293-9193.
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