Monday, September 18, 2017

The Future is the Past is the Future: At Aston Rep's '1984,' Big Brother Merits You Watching -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

George Orwell's 1984
adapted by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr. & William A. Miles Jr.
directed by Robert Tobin
AstonRep Theatre Company
The West Stage @ The Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru October 8

I can't precisely remember, but it would seem I read George Orwell's 1984 either within its namesake year or within 12 months of it, either way.

I recall it being a brilliant book, and--upon its 1949 publication, in 1984 itself, until the present day and well into the foreseeable future--clearly quite prescient.

Although themes, concepts and terms of the book, including the Dystopian setting, brutally dictatorial state under "Big Brother," endless war, constant surveillance, thoughtcrime, thought police, doublespeak, erasing/revising history, etc., etc. have long stuck with me--how could they not?--I have not read it since my high school years.

And before going to see a live version done by Chicago's AstonRep Theatre Company--which has become one of my favorite local troupes in recent years--I did not brush up on the novel's plot summary.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
So seeing 1984 presented in dramatic form involved a multitude of provocations beyond merely taking in a fine work of theater.

As I watched, my mind was trying to construct how the play corresponded with what (little) I remembered of the book--based on now perusing Wikipedia, I'd say it hews pretty closely--what might have been left out, updated, etc.

Informed by the show's program that the British Orwell was a lifelong anti-Stalinist, I couldn't help but think of the influences on the author when he wrote the book--England, Russia, Nazi Germany, the swelling American superpower--and also how things jibed with his visions in the book's titular year.

With slogans from the novel's dogmatic "Party" repeatedly plastered around the theater and spoken within the play (including as videorecorded by Sara Pavlak McGuire for the omnipresent telescreen)--WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH--I couldn't help conjure U2's old Zoo TV concert extravaganzas and the way they barraged with electronic "mindthink."

From Hulu's recent (and now Emmy-winning) The Handmaid's Tale--based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel from 1985--to Charlie Chaplin's 1936 impersonalization-amid-industrialization masterpiece Modern Times to Radiohead's techphobic 1997 OK Computer album (referenced repeatedly by director Robert Tobin at AstonRep) to life in the Trump Age to the Equifax breach to our personal data being marketed by Facebook, Google, etc. to the way we walk around tethered to electronic hallucinogens, my head was spinning with external, related stimuli as I tried to focus on the actors onstage. (A shout-out also to Tobin for slyly incorporating, without lyrics, Radiohead's "2+2=5," as that falsified equation factors heavily into the book and play.)

Heck, given that 1984 was published in 1949, when Winston Churchill was no longer Prime Minister of the U.K.--he would be again in 1951--I also found myself pondering how much import to give the fact that Orwell named the book's main character Winston Smith.

So in many ways, AstonRep deserves props just for presenting 1984, as what should theater do if not make one think? (A dramatic version of 1984 is currently running on Broadway, but it's a different adaptation.)

Yet while I considerably liked 1984 onstage at face value--and all that it brought to mind to compete with my focus shouldn't be seen as a negative--I can't say it consistently kept me mesmerized.

Tobin, his crew and cast do a fine job in setting up the parameters of 1984's totalitarian world, as Syme (a frenetic Tim Larsen), Parsons (the always excellent Alexandra Bennett) and Winston Smith (a nicely-nuanced Ray Kasper) are slaving away in a utilitarian workspace conceivably deep in the bowels of Oceania's Ministry of Truth.

But, especially early on, I was a bit challenged to readily take everything in, and I wondered if those without any prior familiarity with 1984 might be even more confused. (Tobin makes the right choice not to mess with Orwell's dates, but one wouldn't want the totally uninitiated to see this as a look at the past rather than as what still holds up as a prediction of the future.)

The play truly begins to take hold and move forward as the unsuspecting love story begins between the vacillant, middle-aged Winston and the confident, young and pretty Julia (Sarah Lo, who I recalled fondly from AstonRep's Eleemosynary and is strong again here).

In fact, while understanding presenting 1984 likely comes with certain limitations tied to rights clearances--even if one wanted to commission alterations to an existing script or develop a new one--I think I would have liked this play better if it were even more acutely focused on Winston & Julia as they fall in love, run from Big Brother, meet with a Party leader named O'Brien (played well here by Amy Kasper) and face the consequences, including as they pertain to each other.

As much as this does happen in the considerably-more-riveting Act II of AstonRep's production, their rendition of 1984 is still high-quality theater, especially for the quite economical prices they charge. ($20, or less with discounts, such as HotTix and Goldstar.)

But while at under 2 hours including intermission, 1984 onstage never wastes anyone's time, there's likely too much than can be clearly covered, explained or intimated in such a relatively brief dramatization.

That's why I'm hypothesizing a smaller, more humanistic, slice of 1984 might work better onstage.

Or in a bit of simplespeak:

I enjoyed 1984 by AstonRep, enough to recommend it, but I didn't quite love it. I suspect it may require viewers to arrive with a basic familiarity, and though most will, this may prompt competing ruminations. Narrowing the focus might be preferable.


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