Maybe George Orwell’s famously dystopian novel “1984” needs to be re-titled “2018,” because that doomsday book seems closer to reality now more than ever before.
Yes, that’s a harsh comparison, and some theatergoers who see Los Altos Stage Company’s new production of it (adapted by acclaimed Bay Area actor/playwright Michael Gene Sullivan, who just finished a hilarious turn as Detective Fix in TheatreWorks’ production of “Around the World in 80 Days”) will, no doubt, be turned off by the angry shouting, blaring trumpets, cruel torture techniques and other distasteful goings-on.
But there are some recognizable, eerie comparisons to today’s Big Brotherish governmental systems and 24-hour surveillance practices that make it ever so relevant today.
Sullivan has done a masterful job of reimagining Orwell’s revered (and vilified) parable and giving it a chillingly crisp plot.
Add Jenny Hollingworth’s sure, swift direction and a half-dozen passionate actors all intent on demonstrating the mindless automatons that Orwell in 1949 predicted we could all become.
Candidly, it’s not a pleasant play to witness, and some in the audience will likely walk out at intermission or just shut off their eyes and ears to its disturbing content.
But sometimes it’s important to experience something like this production to become more mindful of the milieu of 2018.
Ting Na Wang’s set is intentionally stark — nearly barren — the better to imagine the environment of the characters of Orwell’s soulless world. So, too, are the identical gray suits, white shirts, gray ties and black shoes worn by the four performers known as First, Second, Third and Fourth Party Members. It’s only when they switch into other roles that the audience gets a sense of each actor because the robotic Party Members are mostly indistinguishable from each other.
So it’s left to the colossally talented Ben Ortega as the central character, Winston Smith (called “6079 Smith” by his tormentors), and a mostly offstage but omnipresent Geoff Fiorito as the dreaded O’Brian, to handle the most extreme tasks of the play.
When the lights go up, Ortega is an indistinguishable lump, wearing beige, nondescript clothing and huddled in a pit at center stage. Ortega has several characteristics that make him ideal for this role: His face is an honest one, an open book, some might say, and his gravelly voice rings true. A real Everyman confronting unrelenting, horrific terror.
That’s why the audience feels his pain, understands his impossible dilemma and is shocked at the merciless electric shocks he endures in Act 2.
Over a loudspeaker, Fiorito sounds terrifyingly like a combination of an omnipotent God and Freddy Krueger at his scary best. That’s why it’s a bit of a letdown when he shows up in the torture chamber (the dreaded Room 101) and is just a flesh-and-blood person, albeit one with short-cropped hair, white bushy moustache and a steely, callous demeanor.
But between that scene of Winston in the pit defying Big Brother and his brainwashed, beatific stare when he smiles and says “I love you Big Brother,” there are some troubling side stories and remarks that sound jarringly like what some people are saying today.
It’s impossible to know what is really happening as opposed to what Winston is dreaming or imagining, just as it’s not easy to follow the plotline because it jumps from the future, to the past, to the present and back many times.
So it’s best to appreciate the fine performances which, in addition to Ortega and Fiorito, include Anthony Stephens as the young, altruistic Winston, and Brittney Mignano, who morphs from Second Party Member to mysterious, sensuous Julia, a rebel like Winston, and his domineering love partner.
Stephens has just the right look to play Julia’s earnest, eager lover. As for Mignano, well, this role is a far cry from her most recent one as Wendy in Palo Alto Players’ first-rate “Peter Pan,” but she transitions to the adult world quite nicely.
The remaining two actors, Flip Hofman and Keith Larson, are just fine in other, less showy supporting roles.
The rest of this production is smoke and mirrors, but it’s the words that reverberate afterward … sometimes for days. These are Orwell’s creepy phrases like “ignorance is bliss,” “I must be precise,” “oligarchial collectivism,” “war is peace,” “thought crimes,” “Newspeak” and the two most bloodcurdling of all: “We’re in the business of tearing apart brains,” followed by “We make the brain perfect.”
Just be prepared and forewarned that this insidious surveillance society is tough, but thought-provoking, to watch.