Attention, citizens. In case of a political emergency you may have to report to the Ministry of Love.
That’s one of many eerie and unsettling bits we encounter in the moving theatrical version of “1984,” which opened last weekend at Los Altos Stage Company. The play is an adaptation of George Orwell’s famous 1949 dystopian novel about political dictatorship in an age of surround-media.
Front and center in “1984’ is a prisoner (Ben Ortega) being interrogated for what he has written in a diary. He is asked to retract earlier beliefs and exchange them for new ones.
“Fake news” is a major theme in the play, since most of the pronouncements made by the 1984 government are untrue. Thus the world is built on a cock-eyed psychological landscape of falsehood. The play feels unsettlingly relevant to today’s political climate.
Writing fake news
The prisoner, until recently, held a job at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrote past news clips to bring them into accord with present-day policy. In other words, his job was to create fake news.
Now incarcerated in the Ministry of Love, he is challenged for the real feelings he expressed in an earlier notebook; and for his illegal relationship with a woman. Recounting various memories in the course of his prison torture, he recalls seeing crowds gathering on the street getting ready to celebrate Hate Week.
An important part of “1984” is that his interrogators want him genuinely to love the new false beliefs. Giving up his old beliefs is not what they want. They are actually trying to change his memories and desires at a root level. Periodically during the interrogation, he is electrocuted, to remind him that his mind may be wandering down a forbidden path.
His illegal relationship with the woman (Brittney Mignano) is acted out between two of the interrogators, as the prisoner being tortured watches. Much of his past is acted out in this way by the interrogators, making the detainee a spectator of his own life. A displacement of ego and identity occurs in this process, which is one of the play’s themes.
Story pulls the audience in
The Los Altos production is grim — this tale of cultural mind control — but it pulls the audience in. On the minus end of the scale, “1984” has a monotonous story structure in its first half, where there is a much expositional political discussion — sometimes interesting, but inherently non-dramatic.
It was adapted for the stage by Michael Gene Sullivan, an actor and writer with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and other Bay Area theaters. Director Jenny Hollingworth gets good performances from her Los Altos actors.
It is all eerily reminiscent of a terrific 2013 novel about North Korean culture, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” written by Stanford professor Adam Johnson, which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Welcome to the future. The Thought Police have arrived.