We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Wouldn’t you think adapting a work would be easier than creating one from whole cloth? Playwrights who start from scratch have to face a blank page (or screen, or whatever it is that playwrights face these days) with nothing but their own imaginations to guide them. Playwrights reworking someone else’s creation—be it novel, fairy tale, life story, or even pop song—start with plots already crafted, characters already breathing, conflicts already tweaked. All plusses, right?
With any luck, the work being transfigured for the stage has a coherent narrative, or at least a starting point and a conclusion. It may even have dialogue, albeit probably not as much as is needed for the stage. Still, the fact that it’s being adapted argues that it has proved successful—possibly even popular—in its own medium. The playwright’s mostly just there as intermediary, no? Get the gist of the original up there on stage and the details should take care of themselves. What could be simpler?
Except that it almost never works that way. Christopher Gallu’s entirely faithful and curiously listless staging of George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, joins a raft of other adaptations—freshly conceived stage versions of a James Purdy novel (Malcolm), a Shakespearean tragicomedy (Melissa Arctic), a Soviet screenplay (Crackpots), and a book of photographs (Crowns)—that are making the city’s stages seem unusually dependent on outside influences. Each play is every bit as hampered as it is helped by its source material—Purdy’s bleakness, the Bard’s reliance on magic, the belligerence of Soviet whimsy, and photo portraiture’s lack of drama.
Orwell’s 1949 portrait of a world he would not live to see presents hurdles of its own, not the least of which is that the “Big Brother is watching you” future he envisioned is only marginally more creepy than the Homeland Security/Code Orange one we actually inherited. How can a stage version of 1984 possibly make the “War is peace” and “double-plus-ungood” governmental obfuscations shocking to audiences in an age when presidents talk of “weapons-of-mass-destruction-project-related activities”? Newspeak ended up having a much more sophisticated vocabulary than Orwell anticipated, and doublethink, far from requiring wholesale brainwashing and mental retooling, had become child’s play for the public long before Reagan was promoting trickle-down economics.
All of which conspires against the retro, ’40s-ish future that the Catalyst Theatre is trying to bring to stage life at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Designer Michael D’Addario combines corrugated steel, wire mesh, and wood planking with black-and-white televised images to represent the sterile world inhabited by Everyman Winston Smith (Scott Fortier). As in the novel, Smith docilely arises to the braaaaak of a communal wake-up call, does calisthenics as instructed by his TV, dresses exactly like all his fellow workers, and heads off to the Ministry of Truth, where he spends his days purging old newspapers of data the government has decided are “incorrect.” One day, a car bomb disrupts his daily routine, allowing a co-worker named Julia (Irina Koval) a chance to slip him a card, beginning an affair that brings them to the attention of O’Brien (Ralph Cosham), a party official they suspect is a mole for a terrorist group called the Brotherhood. O’Brien turns out to be a double agent and ends up delivering them to the torture chambers of the Thought Police by intermission. Act 2 finds them being forcibly reprogrammed.
All of this is handled matter-of-factly by the cast, but it proves involving only when it’s pushed to extremes. A “Two Minutes Hate” sequence, in which workers are brought to a screaming frenzy by TV images of a rebel leader, works reasonably well. Cosham’s steely reserve is helpful during the brainwashing bits. But more conventional scenes—trysts in a lovers’ hideaway, jail-cell interrogations, and the like—don’t have much oomph in Gallu’s staging, and they aren’t articulated in his script (or in Orwell’s novel) in a way that’s terribly dramatic. When Newspeak’s “2+2=5” locutions were fresh, they packed a certain anti-Stalinist punch, but the new math of 21st-century politics has robbed them of both surprise and menace.
That’s particularly true of the torture sequences that consume most of the second act, which really need to be horrifying for 1984 to have much impact. At the Capitol Hill Arts Center, they’re as unpersuasive as faked brutality usually is in close quarters. With a bigger budget and a more flexible performance space, Catalyst might have been able to stylize Orwellian violence in some intriguing way, but in a living-room-sized auditorium there’s only so much Gallu and his designers can do with up-from-the-floor lighting and sound effects to mask pulled punches. Fortier’s terrified squirming when he’s presented with his own secret horror is effective enough, but most of what leads up to it looks like play-acting—and that leaves Catalyst’s 1984 feeling…well…passé. CP