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The British theater company Headlong brought their sleek, harrowing adaptation of George Orwell’s towering 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre two years ago. When it opened on Broadway last summer, there were scattered reports of patrons fainting or even vomiting, whether from the high-tech production’s abrasive lighting and sound effects, or from the climax, wherein its poor protagonist, lowly Ministry of Truth history rewriter Winston Smith, is, as in every worthwhile version of this oft-told tale, tortured.
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Scena Theatre’s more modest staging of the Headlong script, by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, is unlikely to give anyone the vapors. The design team has done their best to represent Orwell’s nightmarish prediction of Big Brother’s omnipresent two-way telescreens, enabling random and possibly constant surveillance and force-feeding war propaganda into every public place and home, on a visibly thin budget. The penny-pinching results in a few unfortunately risibile moments, particularly a scene change to Winston and his lover Julia’s forbidden antique shop love nest that consists of someone shoving a bed onstage, not quietly, from the wings.
The best reason to seek out this production is Ron Litman, who channels the manic energy that has powered his various Capital Fringe Festival solo plays (with musician Tom Pile) into his serpentine performance as O’Brien, the party official who becomes Smith’s torturer and confessor. Not all of Litman’s fellows can match his command of his role, but if ever there were a piece of material that can forgive some shaky performances, it’s this one.
As Winston and Julia, the woman who abruptly initiates an illegal love affair with him, Scena founder Robert McNamara has cast, respectively, Panamanian actor Oscar Ceville and Austrian actor Karoline Troger. While both are experienced performers, English is neither artist’s first language. Their occasionally wooden line readings are less a hindrance in a story set in a world where even demonstrative facial expressions are outlawed than they might be in a gabbier evening. And of course, for me to complain that the actors in a play that is in part about how language itself is being shrunk and weaponized to control thought don’t speak the language I’m most comfortable hearing in the way most comfortable to me would be to risk death by irony.
One of the smartest things Icke and Macmillan have done to update Orwell’s warning is to put a metatextual frame around the tale, wherein a group of intellectuals discuss the book in the middle of the 21st century. We initially believe them to be talking about the manifesto penned by Goldstein, the official enemy of Big Brother and the subject of the ritualistic Two Minutes’ Hate—another key element of the book that doesn’t quite raise the alarm that it should in this version. In a note reminiscent of the many-decades-later epilogue of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and more recent futurepocalypse novels, like Omar El Akkad’s American War) these chin-scratchers seem to be living in a better world that has overthrown the authoritarian regime Winston and Julia lived under and now regards Winston’s diary as a historical artifact. One of them says they have no way of knowing whether Winston ever existed at all. You wish you could disagree.
At Atlas Performing Arts Center to May 27. 1333 H St. NE. $25–$45. (202) 399-7993. scenatheatre.org.