“You can’t found a civilization on fear and lies and cruelty!”
Perhaps not, but you can certainly win a presidential campaign on it. This protest, uttered in the throes of torture by Winston Smith, the everyman hero of 1984, is one of countless ways George Orwell’s novel echoes across our zeitgeist. With every passing year, his fiction lurches closer to prophecy, even if he was off by a few decades.
Endless war, the erosion of privacy and the ubiquity of surveillance, the stifling of dissent and the deconstruction of language, the proliferation of propaganda and the doctoring of truth: Most of these “1984” forecasts were gaining traction in the United States by 2004, when playwright Andrew White adapted the book for the stage, but they’ve reached full flower in 2017. Sales of the book famously spiked this past January, when the phrase “alternative facts” entered the political lexicon, introduced by a person who would have fit snugly into Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth.
For Outre Theatre Company, the temptation to revisit Orwell’s dystopia in the Trump era proved too enticing to resist. The gypsy company, formerly of Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, chose White’s “1984” as the first production in its permanent new home at the just-opened Pompano Beach Cultural Center.
The decision was greeted by much anticipation, but by intermission, it was difficult to feel anything but deflation. Languorously paced by director Skye Whitcomb, this dreary production of an already downbeat source material updates few of its rich ironies and profound revelations. White’s imperfect edit eschews some of the more salient and necessary points of Orwell’s novel, and Outre’s translation—stolidly acted and plagued with audio issues—leaves even more gaps. If you’re unfamiliar with the novel, expect to feel marooned.
Whitcomb favors a barebones aesthetic suggestive of the bland, functional sterility that Smith and his co-workers inhabit. The scenic design, by Doug Wetzel, consists of a vacant stage with three slightly raised platforms, whose cleverest touch is the pair of Big Brother banners flanking the stage, each bruiting a signature “1984” contradiction: “Freedom is Slavery; War is Peace.” The implication is that Big Brother is watching us while we’re watching the play.
Ambience is generated mostly through the giant “telescreen” behind the stage, adding a welcome multimedia element. On it, we see footage, shot specifically for this production, consisting of everything from jingoistic news reports to buried memories from Winston Smith’s childhood to the occasional POV shot that, oddly, does not match the onstage visuals. In the most compelling and inventive usage of the telescreen, we watch Winston Smith (Seth Trucks) re-edit a soldier’s dispiriting battlefield interview into a falsely patriotic bromide. He creates this “fake news” on an iPad, one of the ways Whitcomb situates the story in a more modern era.
On opening night, there were still tech kinks to be ironed out, as evidenced by the disastrous opening of Act Two, in which a televised Emmanuel Goldstein (Michael Small), Big Brother’s straw-man enemy, offers his treatise on war. But the audio malfunctioned, leaving us to observe Winston reading Goldstein’s words silently onstage for a languid minute or two. This is unfortunate, because the soundtrack likely contained some of Orwell’s most incendiary and accurate prognostications. (i.e. “War hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries, and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of whole populations to slavery, and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive, are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious.”)
It wasn’t the only instance of the sound design going astray on opening night. One of Winston’s diary entries abruptly stopped mid-sentence, and most of the other audio clips were inaudibly low, even when providing crucial exposition.
These problems cannot be overstated. For a show that depends this much on a sensorial experience, they are debilitating, and do no favors to the actors. Trucks, who recently excelled in Evening Star’s effusive production of “Waiting for Godot,” performs on the opposite end of the spectrum here, so much so that he lacks both the presence and personality of an inchoate revolutionary. The same can be said of Jennipher Murphy’s Julia, who shares no chemistry with Winston; even the sex scenes proceed with plodding, clinical detachment.
As O’Brien, Peter Galman’s finest hour is the show’s menacing climax in and around Room 101. Carrying himself with stentorian, fascistic authority, he’s the embodiment of a dictatorship. Yet it’s impossible to buy his character’s bait and switch of the naïve Winston and Julia, which came off as plausible in the novel: There’s nothing in Galman’s performance to indicate subversion, save for an unexplained insignia on a business card.
Meredith Bartmon, Michael Conner, Joey de la Rua, Murphy Hayes and Daryl Patrice provide capable support; Bartmon is especially memorable as Syme, the story’s ultimate party loyalist, gleefully truncating the dictionary and hissing at Goldstein with sociopathic fervor. Yet some actors’ transitions into secondary roles—such as Bartmon and Patrice doubling as spoiled children—feel jarring and unconvincing.
This “1984” is, sadly, adrift. It’s neither a suitable introduction to the book nor an immersive tribute for its longtime admirers, though it probably aspires to be the latter. A few more days in tech may have helped.
“1984” runs through July 30 at Pompano Beach Cultural Center, 50 W. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach. Tickets run $19-$39. Call 954/839-9578 or visit ccpompano.org.