War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. And Catalyst is in the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, rather than its old digs at the Capital Hill Arts Center. I know this last one is true because I saw them there, with my own eyes, producing a visually arresting, technically flawless, intellectually faithful adaptation of one of the seminal novels of the twentieth century.
1984 was seminal because it made us squarely confront the objective of twentieth-century totalitarianism: the control of human thought. In Orwell’s dystopia, a nameless Party dominates the everyday lives of the citizens of Oceania. Winston Smith (Scott Fortier) is employed in “rectifying” historical records by, for example, erasing mention of the accomplishments of former Party leaders who have turned against orthodoxy; his friend Syme (Ashley Ivey) is in charge of putting together a dictionary, the object of which is to make it impossible to challenge the state by eliminating the words with which the state could be challenged. But the principal, overarching method of control is the telescreen (voiced by James Konicek), which not only bellows out instructions to everyone but can actually see what’s going on in your room, and gives you individualized instruction as appropriate.
Bored, bullied, driven between the Two-Minute Hate and the Anti-Sex League (both designed to funnel all human energy to serve the state’s ends), Winston finds himself, astonishingly, the object of the beautiful Julia’s (Laura C. Harris) passion. Even more astonishingly, Julia wants to liberate the two of them from Big Brother’s all-seeing eye, so that they can live in naked freedom. Together, they turn to O’Brien (Ian LeValley), a sophisticated Party leader who seems to understand, and support, the need for liberty. It is a fatal mistake.
The novel 1984 made profound concepts accessible, and this production gives honor to them all. O’Brien’s argument that the past exists only in records and in human memory, and that if both are altered then the past is altered, is given full shrift here, as is the flailing which the totalitarians give our language, in the name of narrowing choice. A dedicated party functionary (Elizabeth Richards) is turned in to the Thought Police by her seven-year-old daughter for saying “down with Big Brother” in her sleep, and would be grateful for five years of forced labor for it. This production calls all the totalitarian tropes to account, just as Orwell himself did, sixty years ago.
And yet…and yet. Orwell’s novel was first a story, not a political tract or a meditation on power. He drew Smith with careful precision as a frail, unhealthy, lackluster hack, whose existence is bleak (his wife is the head of the Anti-Sex League) and hopeless. Julia’s love for – and, more improbably, faith in – him comes like a gift from God, and he approaches her in a haze of wonder. When he falls for her it is like a man dying of thirst falling into a pool of cold, clear water. Together, they tentatively approach the enigmatic O’Brien, eventually concluding, with increasing wonder, that he’s on their side. The novel’s gradual buildup of Winston Smith’s hopes is what makes the betrayal heartbreaking.
We see little of that in this production. Director Petosa fills the first Act with stylized representations of 1984’s bleak landscape on James Kronzer’s excellent set, with heavy emphasis on flashing lights, dance moves and posturing. The drab Winston Smith is here played by Scott Fortier, who is – not to put too fine a point on it – young, athletic and unusually good-looking. It is unexpected, but certainly no shock, that Julia falls so heavily for him. I know that we have debated in this space whether plays should cast actors who conform to physical types. In most instances I think it is unnecessary, but when doing 1984 it is important that Winston Smith be enfeebled by his oppressive life, just as it is important that Julia be beautiful (Harris is). Fortier, a superb actor, could have easily made Smith a less impressive character (John Hurt played him in the movie). I’m sorry that Catalyst chose not to go down that path.
But the larger problem is the problem that all book adaptations have: it takes too long to do the novel justice. 1984 is a slender tome, but there is very little fat to it. Developing the relationships – between Smith and Julia, and between the two of them and O’Brien – could only have been done at the cost of developing some of the larger themes. I respect Gallu’s decision not to do so, but I did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would.
Act Two is largely given over to the famous torture scene, which Gallu reproduces faithfully from the book. Here LeValley shines as O’Brien, who makes his cynicism into a kind of love. The fearsome last moments of the scene, in which O’Brien strips Winston Smith of his humanity, is wonderfully powerful…and not for the squeamish.
I cannot let this review pass without discussing the play’s most striking feature: the carnivorous recorded voice of James Konicek as Big Brother’s telescreen. It is the sound of every used-car pitchman, every low-level political ad, every K-mart blue-light special blown up a thousand times and made mad with avarice. Konicek is a friend of mine and will soon be making an appearance on this site, but I am certain you will agree that he has presented a voice which could create a tsunami of nightmares, and reduce human dreams to dust.
Running Time: Two hours fifteen minutes, with one intermission.
Where: Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC
When: Thursday through Sunday until October 5. Thursdays through Saturdays are at 8, and Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2. There is no Sunday evening show.
Tickets: $10. To order, visit the website.