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Put down your telescreens: '1984' play parallels life in 2017

You don’t have to be a political wonk to get the feeling that the play “1984” is reverberating with relevancy these days.

Set aside the recent headlines about a London production that transferred to Broadway in June amid reports of audience members fainting and vomiting during a notorious interrogation scene that New York Times critic Ben Brantley called “graphic enough to verge on torture porn.” In New York, the rigors of the show caused the leads Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge to suffer broken bones, a dislocated rib and a busted lip. In London, police were called into the theater when a fight broke out among audience members.

“I don’t want people to come in expecting the same adaptation, because it is not,” says Skye Whitcomb, the director of Outre Theatre Company’s production of the play, which will be staged July 13-30 at Pompano Beach Cultural Center. “I’m glad for the publicity. Are there disturbing moments? Of course. The novel is disturbing.”

Based on George Orwell’s 1949 book of the same name (which became a bestseller on Amazon soon after Inauguration Day, 68 years after its first publication), the stage play is also a social science fiction about an authoritarian state that has outlawed all forms of individual expression, including thought, religion and love. Themes — so identified with the work they are often described as “Orwellian” — include government-sponsored deception, secret surveillance, propaganda, brainwashing, rewriting history and a totalitarian leader who enjoys a cult of personality.

“We started talking about the possibility of doing an adaptation … last summer,” continues Whitcomb, who is also Outre’s artistic director. “With everything going on, we just thought it would be a neat show for us to do. Right after the election, we were looking at different adaptations. We found this one from Andrew White at Lookingglass Theatre [in Chicago].”

Whitcomb says the surveillance state is at the heart of this version.

“Not only do people know about it, but they accept it,” he says. “My fellow members of Outre, we all sort of talked about how cameras are everywhere now to the point that we don’t even think about it. Right now, Google knows exactly where I am because I’m logged into my Gmail. And now, [Google] will show me things based on this and what I’ve searched. It’s not just government surveillance, but corporate surveillance. But no one thinks about it.”

In the novel, the government uses “telescreens” to keep an eye on the population and to relate propaganda, as described in this passage: “The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.”

“We actually worked that into the production,” Whitcomb says. “Not just the telescreen, which you can’t get away from, even when you’re pumping gas, but the cell phone, these screens in our pockets that we are constantly using. We have worked that into the production. Our actors are using their phones. They’re taking pictures, watching videos.”

But he hastens to add that the warning Orwell intended is still very much what Outre’s staging is about.

“For the first time in a long time, we have a government, or members of the government, where facts are not facts anymore,” Whitcomb says. “Where things are said one day and then the next day the complete opposite is said, and they act as if nothing has changed. In ‘1984,’ they are at war with one country and then they are at war with another country, and it’s as if it has always been that way. How can that happen? Kellyanne Conway saying ‘alternative facts’ really rings true. There is no objective truth. ‘1984’ is about how easily people can fall prey to these manipulations.

“Orwell, he wrote this book to warn us. People say it can never happen. Yeah, yeah, it can. It can happen really, really easily if we’re not observant and careful. We have to hold people in power accountable for what they say and not allow this shell game to take place.”

“1984” runs July 13-30 at Pompano Beach Cultural Center, 50 W Atlantic Blvd. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Sundays. Tickets cost $39 for adults and $19 for students and industry. To order, call 954-839-9578 or go to CCPompano.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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