Watching 1984 at the Playbill was like double-warped time travel. My vivid flashbacks of how far into the future that date seemed as a kid in the 1960’s, collided with the present reality of how long ago it was, only to be smacked with the parallels between the Big Brother totalitarian state and U.S.A. in 2006. It was mind-boggling. The barebones Meat and Potato production uses the tiny black box in the rear of Playbill Café to the fullest, scrapes along on a minuscule budget and shows what can be done with a bucket load of creativity, imagination and lots of heart.
In today’s vigilant if somewhat paranoid society, it’s not that big a stretch to imagine the watchful eye of Big Brother seeing your every move, shaping the course and direction of your thoughts, and setting up a conservative agenda with a periscopic “us versus them” mentality. Adapted and directed by theater-obsessed Tobin Atkinson (who is also Artistic Director with his sister Enid Atkinson as Associate Producer), 1984 bristles with familiar allusions to Security of the Homeland, Operation Freedom and Democracy, and a righteous Christian Society. Movie patrons shout themselves hoarse watching films with patriotic zeal, and work themselves into frothy pitches of patriotism with any reference to the all-knowing Big Brother.
Winston Smith, well played by John Geoffrion as the “everyman”, shows early signs of fatigue with the patriotic hysteria while toiling at his job of translating messages into “news speak” -war is peace, casualties of an unnamed war become victorious un-alive patriots. He catches of eye Julia, played by Kristin Egermeier-Hampton, who he initially thinks is spying on him, only to discover a kindred freedom-yearning spirit. Stealing away from the omnipresent eye of “B.B.” as the party is affectionately called, for a few precious moments helps restore Winston’s will to live, and once free from the relentless drone of patriotic fervor, Julia’s eyes brighten, she becomes more animated, even talks dirty because she is free to say and love what she wants, even if only for a few unguarded moments.
Although the first act drags a bit in the beginning while inducting you into the verbiage and world of the party and the strange masks for the “proles” (proletariats), the budding relationship between John and Julia anchors us into what’s at stake. The transformation of the two lovers is nicely reflected through the well designed costumes and props, with Winston cherishing an old fashioned journal and Julia dressing in a white flowing summer dress, the possession of each is tantamount to acts of treason-no sense of individuality or personal expression is tolerated in the state.
Even sitting together in the sunshine talking freely and listening to chirping birds takes on proportions of rhapsody, and offers some of the most engaging passages of the piece. Once the script gets past a rather heavy-handed and too obvious reference to a particular picture in the hide-away room, the inevitable discovery of the lovers and their plight at the hands of the devoted, demented followers offers a glimpse at the horror of mind control orchestrated by B.B.
Atkinson effectively makes use of his military experience with the U.S. Army Entertainment and tours to Iraq and Afghanistan in adapting the military tone in the text, identifying names like Abdulla as the enemy, and assuring a disciplined, regimented crispness in the officers movements and style.
“Discovered” during a successful production at this year’s Fringe Festival, Meat and Potatoes Theatre has mounted 1984 as it’s first full run production. Atkinson has an affinity for adapting historical pieces (he completed a work by Dostoevsky for a master’s thesis) and appreciates Orwell who explores “the power as well as the negation of the individual.” Considering the wealth of material just down the road on Capitol Hill, Atkinson and company should have plenty ideas to keep them busy and the metro area well served.