It’s blast-from-the-past week, apparently: With the Catalyst Theater folk reviving their 2004 take on a dystopian classic from the late 1940s, Rep Stage using 50-year-old letters to do homage to a McCarthy-era hero, and the good folks at Open Circle Theatre digging for contemporary resonance in a ’70s-vintage improve-exercise piece, audiences might be forgiven for wondering if there is, after all, nothing new under the footlights. But bear up: The results are more rewarding than you might imagine.
Nearest at hand—and potentially nearest, no doubt, to the hearts of countless Bushwhacked locals—is Catalyst’s 1984, adapted by company member Chris Gallu from the 1949 novel that gave us terms like “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime.” Four years ago, a production in Catalyst’s living-room-size Capitol Hill space underwhelmed City Paper’s Bob Mondello, who wrote that “the ‘Big Brother is watching you’ future [Orwell] envisioned is only marginally more creepy than the Homeland Security/Code Orange one we actually inherited”—and argued that the “governmental obfuscations” of our contemporary dystopia have made the tortured Newspeak of Orwell’s anti-Stalinist allegory seem almost tame.
The Abu Ghraib story wouldn’t break until after Catalyst’s initial run had ended, but even before audiences had access to real-life images of modern torture for the sake of comparison, the reprogramming sequences that make up the bulk of 1984’s second act didn’t quite work for Catalyst the first time out—not least because the tiny auditorium put patrons close enough to see the punches being pulled and the agonies being acted. “With a bigger budget and a more flexible performance space,” Mondello suggested, “Catalyst might be able to stylize Orwellian violence in some intriguing way.”
Wish granted: The 1984 revival at the comparatively cavernous black-box space at the Atlas Performing Arts Center—different director, different design crew, same adaptation, some of the same cast—looks expensive, moves with commendable dispatch, spreads itself out on a set that reconfigures itself with every new scene, and has been stylized to hell and back. It’s a sleek, slick production with evidence of wit and thought in every detail, from the Code Orange trim on those Party-loyalist uniforms to the chic, cutting-edge consumer tech (hint: it comes with a touch-screen and an AT&T calling plan) with which protagonist Winston Smith (Scott Fortier) and his colleagues redact unwelcome truths from back issues of the daily news. And as for those torture sequences: “Stylized” is just the first word that comes to mind. Close behind it: “Ghastly,” “disturbingly sensual,” and “startlingly effective.”
The story, as you’ll probably recall, involves a Party functionary in totalitarian Oceania and his growing doubts about the narrative the state is selling: We’re at war with whom? Since when? Why, again? The answers change, as do Smith’s loyalties, which have always been a little shaky anyway—and which take a direct hit when a dark-haired Party colleague (Laura C. Harris) surprises him with a love note and an invitation to a little extracurricular anarchy.
Soon they’re rendezvousing in the country, sneaking off to seedy rooms in “the prole sector,” and … confessing their counterrevolutionary zeal to a charismatic Party higher-up (Ian LeValley) the minute he hints he might have similar leanings.
If that last sounds a trifle hurried, well, yes: The interpersonal shadings in Gallu’s adaptation aren’t the most delicate, and little things like character development sometimes get short shrift in this version of the story. (Save some blame for Orwell, though, if the central relationship seems a little undercooked; a romance writer he wasn’t.)
Still, the exhilarating design (credit Michael D’Addario for the video projections, Pei Lee for those sharp costumes, Andrew Cissna on lights, Matthew M. Nielson on sound, and the near-ubiquitous James Kronzer on sets, all of them wrangled confidently by director Jim Petosa) makes it all eminently interesting as a multi-media experience.
And more: Whatever intimacy goes begging between the lovers is more than made up for by the dark, intense, almost unspeakable thing that grows between Fortier and LeValley as Act 2 arcs toward that foreordained unhappy ending.
For those reasons alone—never mind the echoes Orwell’s story might stir in the uneasy millennial-American psyche—it’s a downright eye-opening night in the theater. If nothing else, you might look twice at the next iPhone-fiddling hipster who plunks himself down at your local coffeehouse; if our society gets any more like Orwell’s Oceania, he might just be busy erasing your identity.