The election of Donald J. Trump to the nation’s highest office has been very good for sales of red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, endless outraged Twitter threads and vital investigative journalism.
It also has led to a surge in the popularity of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”
After presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts” in January, Orwell’s chilling 1949 work about a totalitarian society hit No. 1 on the Amazon bestseller list; today, it’s No. 2 on the Amazon classics list, right behind Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
A British stage version by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan is currently running on Broadway. Starring Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde, the production’s graphic torture scenes have reportedly left more than a few audience members horrified or nauseated.
A different adaptation has just opened in South Florida as the first production by Outre Theatre in its new home at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center. (Read an interview with the director here.) The 2004 script by Andrew White of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre compresses Orwell’s story in a way that isn’t always easy to follow.
Yet so much of the piece – the “doublethink” gobbledygook that passes for truth, omnipresent video screens keeping everyone under surveillance, a world perpetually at war, the routine rewriting of history – is close enough to our current reality that most people will feel the play’s resonance. Orwell was prescient, all right, just a few decades off.
The story, you may recall, centers on Winston Smith (Seth Trucks), a member of the middle class Outer Party in the post-war superstate of Oceania. He lives a life of gray routine, rewriting history at the ironically named Ministry of Truth, wearily getting up for compulsory morning exercises led by a drill sergeant of a woman who watches him from the mandatory telescreen in his flat, popping out for shots of “Victory Gin” invariably accompanied by a toast to Oceania’s possibly apocryphal but omnipresent leader Big Brother. (Yes, reality TV’s “Big Brother,” where participants are watched and filmed 24/7, took its name from Orwell’s novel.)
Winston’s life changes when his coworker Julia (Jennipher Murphy), who maintains the Ministry’s novel-writing machines and is a fiery member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, slips him a three-word note: “I love you.” The two begin a forbidden, reckless affair and are soon drawn into the counterrevolutionary world of a group called the Brotherhood. Soon enough, “friends” become enemies, gruesome torture follows, and betrayal destroys any illusions of freedom or self-determination.
Presenting “1984” amid the current Zeitgeist is a smart move. But Outre production is tech-intensive, with frequent use of videos, projections and intense sound effects.
It’s logical and appropriate to make use of large-scale video imagery in a piece involving perpetual surveillance, but Outre’s opening was marred by multiple glitches, including sound that was silent or at times turned so low that words became unintelligible. Although the latter may have been deliberate, it isn’t effective.
Though the proscenium is surrounded by colorful propaganda posters with such Orwellian “doublethink” phrases as “War Is Peace” and “Freedom Is Slavery,” Doug Wetzel’s spare set consists of a series of platforms, with location changes accomplished by projections and the addition/subtraction of minimal furniture pieces.
In this new and rather large theater space, Outre’s “1984” looks unfinished and lacks an intimacy that might have made the production more powerful. Perhaps “American Idiot,” the rock musical Outré will produce at the Pompano Beach center in November, will be a better fit for the space.
Director Skye Whitcomb has cast the piece well, with Trucks playing Winston as a psychologically battered man haunted by forbidden memories and Murphy making Julia a risk-taker whose passion invites doom.
Peter W. Galman is charming and chilling as O’Brien, an elite Inner Party member who seems to be sympathetic to the Brotherhood’s cause. Similarly, Murphy Hayes is a sympathetic figure as Charrington, an antiques dealer who plays a part in Winston and Julia’s personal and political rebellion. Appearing on video as Brotherhood leader Emmanuel Goldstein, Michael H. Small leads Trucks’ Winston into dangerous ideological territory (though the audio in a key scene was missing on opening night).
Meredith Bartmon, Michael Conner, Joey De La Rua and Daryl Patrice play Winston’s key coworkers, while Wetzel is Big Brother. Manny Zaldivar is director of photography and video editor (additional videography and editing is by Amy Mahon), with Guy Haubrich supplying sound, lighting and the projection design, and Erin Charles the costumes.
Outré’s “1984” doesn’t quite coalesce, nor does it retain its dramatic grip on the audience throughout. Even so, in a world full of Trump Tweets, Kim Jong-un threats, “fake” news and devices that track every little thing about us, the play is likely to seem disturbingly familiar.
“1984” is an Outre Theatre Company production running through July 30 at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center, 50 W. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $39 ($19 students and industry tickets). To order, call 954-545-7800 or go to www.ccpompano.org or www.outretheatrecompany.com.