Chicago Theater Review: 1984 (AstonRep Theatre Company at The Raven Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 16, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Everything evil is new again: What George Orwell wrote 69 years ago still remains ahead of our time—but, with a President in power who purveys “alternative facts” and denounces “fake news” (that he can’t use), it’s not nearly as much as it should or used to be.

However accurately Robert Tobin’s cunningly detailed staging depicts the futuristic post-war look of a one-party state, resonances to 2017 overwhelm us—phony news stories on Facebook and rumors on Twitter, Bush’s double-speaking “Mission Accomplished,” Gitmo, Fox News, Abu Ghraib, facial recognition software, surveillance cameras, “disruption,” the NSA’s email-trolling, loyalty pledges, “Occupy Wall Street,” the rise of Antifa. Adapted by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr., and William A. Miles Jr. from the still-seminal 1948 novel, AstonRep’s recreation of a dystopia now officially a third of a century old carries both the past and future screaming and kicking into the present.

A drudge in the Ministry of Truth (where graphic actual war footage gets clipped and tortured into empty, jingoistic newsreels), Winston Smith is observed day and night by his interactive T.V. (a “telescreen” much anticipating the “webcam”). The sole recreation for this member of the Outer Party is the “two-minute hate,” when he flocks to a public square and gets to scream at the current enemy of Oceania—Eurasia (who, according to the media, is the eternal foe—until the next one, East Asia, is announced).

This is a world where “if the facts say otherwise, then the facts must be altered,” where “who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present controls the past,” and where “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Here “the choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the greater bulk of mankind happiness is better.” Here politically correct “Newspeak,” “Duckspeak,” “Crimethink,” and “Doublethink” have so shrunk and impoverished any possible language of protest that resistance is futile. Only “Goodthink” is permitted. Contradictions of thought or action do not disturb citizens who can accept these without confusion or pausing for reflection.

Dumbed down by fact control, the citizens shudder in a state of constant fear leading to “controlled insanity.” In a world of no privacy, memory-control and fear-mongering (a trait Trump has mastered magnificently), “War Is Peace,” “Ignorance Is Strength,” and “Freedom Is Slavery” (much as the 2004 “Clear Skies” bill in fact increased pollution). In Oceania no one admits a mistake: They rewrite history. National attention is distracted from domestic concerns by a “wag the dog” enemy. Propaganda encourages brainwashing: “Power lies in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” The official enemy is a rebel named Goldstein, more a useful fiction than any real threat to Big Brother.

As Voltaire said, “‘If you can get people to believe absurdities, you can get them to commit atrocities.” Certain, easy answers are tempting during times of crisis. Why can’t “2 + 2 = 5″? Saddam Hussein = WMD? But some questions remain constant in their capacity to destroy discussion, like “Why do you hate Oceania so much?”

Enough “thoughtcrimes” or untidy emotions can lead to the Thought Police throwing you into Room 101 where you must literally face your worst fears. Or they’re quite capable and willing to “disappear” or “vaporize” (the military prefer “terminate with extreme prejudice”) such mental malefactors, then erase any evidence that these “unpersons” ever existed.

Winston’s fate is determined when, forgetting that “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself,” he starts an illegal journal. This too-curious creature dares to inquire about the forbidden territory of the past. He soon acts on rumors of a conspiracy against Big Brother and “Ingsoc,” B.B.’s fascist/socialist/anarchist/corporate government. The love Winston shares with his colleague Julia inspires him to a kneejerk heroism that perversely resembles a jihad-crazed suicide bomb. It’s, well, Orwellian.

Given the ferocious and detailed video and violence design by Tobin, AstonRep makes this dire and dysfunctional realm menacing enough for its source. This world of closed-circuit cameras and two-way television—that’s always on like lightbulbs in solitary confinement—is drained of color but crazy with noise (sets: Jeremiah Barr; lights and sound: Samantha Barr). The too-brief, retrospectively quiet moments seem stolen from a better time.

As the hapless lovers, Ray Kasper and Sarah Lo discover depths of doom, though their somewhat stylized performances downplay the urgency of their occasions. The rest of the 11-member cast (including Sara Pavlak McGuire who only gets to show two dimensions) commit to conformity and regulation with a vengeance (even for actors). Notable turns include Lorraine Freund’s landlady, incongruously nostalgic for dimly remembered lost freedoms, and Amy Kasper as the insinuatingly treacherous overseer O’Brien.

Overall 1984 is both enriched and depleted by its adherence to its source. This is an invigoratingly austere look at a fear-ravaged England rancid with paid informers. It’s also 105 minutes of very dark energy. Or, as Orwell chillingly and paradoxically put it, “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” Fear trumps freedom.

photos by Emily Schwartz

AstonRep Theatre Company
The Raven Theatre (West Stage), 6157 N. Clark St.
Thurs-Sat and Mon at 8; Sun at 3:30
ends on October 8, 2017
for tickets, call 773.828.9129 or visit AstonRep

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