An unseen voice asks, "How did it all begin?" A barefoot man with bruised face and slumped shoulders answers in a pained sigh and looking blankly somewhere forward, "You already know." The voice, now more insistent, replies, "Yes, but tell us ... Be precise." And four frozen faces in identical gray suits look in full contempt.
So begins the San Francisco Bay Area's own Michael Gene Sullivan's 2011 stage adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, now in a northern California premiere production by the Los Altos Stage Company. Written in 1949, the original novel is about a dystopian future where individualism and independent are considered "thought crimes;" where Big Brother and his "Thought Police" are on the ubiquitous prowl for offenders through hidden cameras in every corner; and where one man, Winston Smith, dares to think and feel for himself. Mr. Sullivan's adaptation takes an already dark and menacing story about authoritarian rule and total subjugation of all citizens and revs up the threat and the horror by several degrees. He does to by beginning his version in the location of the novel's climax, the torture chamber known as Room 101.
In this excellent but disturbing staging, we the audience become witnesses to the torture-induced confession of Citizen Smith, with four other citizens also watching and being called upon to act out pieces of his story as he watches. The effect is often horrendous as we see the physical and mental pains to which he is subjected and as we increasingly hear his screams from induced electrical shocks. The effect is numbing on us as audience members who are only a few feet away from Winston himself. So uncomfortable do the proceedings become that our heads often turn away or hands instinctively move to cover our eyes or ears. And at the same time, we—like the four citizens who aid and abet the confessions—are full of fixed fascination and feel totally compelled to keep watching.
Each of the citizens holds copies of his diary, using the forbidden words as a kind of script when called upon to become him or others of whom he wrote. The diary had been written by him in his meager apartment, out of view (at least he thought) from the ever-present, camera eyes of Big Brother.
Ben Ortega is nothing short of painfully stunning as Winston Smith. He appears a man already broken physically and racked mentally but one whose defiance still shows through in his clinched fists and firm jaw. He obeys commands to tell the specifics that he knows the Hidden Voice already knows (since everything is already detailed in the diary); and he does so in a combined voice of impatience and resignation for the inevitable doom he knows is coming. Yet like any human—even one whose humanity is fast being stripped away even as we watch—there is still some desperate hope in Mr. Ortega's eyes and occasionally supplicant voice, wishing that his confession will lead to some sort of mercy. But as the torture increases, we watch as all of what used to be Winston Smith begins to vanish—along with any remaining hope—in the wretched heap of a man that Mr. Ortega so masterfully portrays.
Each of the Four Citizens (identified in the program as First-Fourth Party Member) watches intently his every move—sometimes sneering, sometimes acting bored, sometimes actually themselves showing some pity (but the last only briefly, in fear of their own fates in front of the all-seeing cameras). Their own tensions erupt periodically into quarrels among them, especially when the most ardent and cynical among them, Third Party Member (Keith Larson), lashes out at any sign of weakness among the others. They take turns as a head on the screen when announcements are made by Big Brother and others party officials, announcements preceded by the sound of trumpets and always followed by all four awkwardly clapping and cheering extremely loudly.
Both Mr. Larson and Filip Hofman (Fourth Party Member) play various characters of Winston's story—people like his naïve and conforming neighbor Parsons (Mr. Hofman), who in the end is turned in to the Thought Police by his seven-year-old daughter or his old friend and Ministry of Truth colleague, Syme (Mr. Larson), who enjoys destroying words as the dictionary is reduced bit by bit (but who also finds himself arrested for thinking too much). Mr. Hofman also dons glasses to become O'Brien, a supposed member of the Brotherhood (a counter-revolutionary group) who convinces Winston to join in resisting Big Brother, a decision that proves to be deadly wrong.
Anthony Stephens (First Party Member) is particularly powerful as he becomes time and again Winston himself, often picking up on words Winston is saying and then finishing the sentence in a scene that plays out in front of a now silent and expressionless Winston. His Winston is someone we can relate to as the more human side of the skeleton of a former man we otherwise see before us.
Part of the story Mr. Stephens interprets that is especially gripping is his meeting and becoming lovers with Julia, a role that the Second Party Member steps into from time to time. Brittney Mignano as a watching citizen is eerily stone-faced and stern; but once she is called upon to become Julia, she is suddenly beautiful, seductive, and loving. Likewise, Mr. Stephens' Winston becomes equally sexual, cunning, and daring in his love-making with Julia and in their joint plotting of how they can lead a shadow life without being detected. Their acts of hot love play out as the real Winston watches with no visible emotion and as the other two Citizens often react in disgust and even with violence in seeing forbidden love re-enacted before them.
Geoff Fiorito is the prying, probing, and prodding unseen voice that commands Winston's confession sessions. As things worsen for Winston and the threat of maximal torture reaches its peak, he appears in Room 101 to oversee the final cleansing of anything left in Winston that has up to now defined him as a thinking, feeling human being. Mr. Fiorito's portrayal is enough to make hairs on one's neck bristle, in a combination of fear and disgust of whom he portrays.
Jenny Hollingworth directs this well-cast ensemble with an ability to keep the audience's tension and anticipation level always high but without exhausting us too early in the one hundred ten minutes of the play. There is a no-holes-barred approach as the torture levels increase, aided by the sound design of Gary Landis and the properties of Dianne Vega as rats become the ultimate element of Winston's (and our) punishment. (Mr. Landis' orchestrated sound effects are a major reason throughout the play that the action is front of us is so shockingly real.) The stark set design by Ting Na Wang establishes a chamber where nothing good is going to happen, with screens and cameras dotting the stone-like walls always to remind us that Big Brother's eyes are ever-present (and may in fact be watching us).
In 2017, 1984 topped Amazon's best-selling novels list. The novel written at a time when fear of Communism spread like a wild fire across post-war Europe and beyond makes many references to the kinds of mind control Westerners feared the Soviet Union was having on its citizens. In 2018, the threat of facts being changed or denied by a central government, of individuals who do not fall into party lines being ridiculed and demeaned through a worldwide communication network, or of the possibility of surveillance in every home actually being possible—these are threats that now feel more real than ever. The water-boarding torture techniques used by our own country in the early 2000s are no less horrible than the ones we see Winston enduring. And the fact that the Winston in front of us is clearly by looks and by accent a man of Latino heritage (a bold and daring move by this director) makes his capture and torture even more unsettling, given our own president's constant Tweets about those among us who have immigrated to this country from lands south of the U.S.
Los Altos Stage Company has chosen a timely, if uncomfortable to watch 1984 for its current season, particularly in the harshly realistic and disturbing adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan. Their production proves the power of live theater and what can be done on a stage that cannot be duplicated in quite the same way on the written page or even the movie screen. This is a daring production for a small, local company and one that should be seen, discussed, and then discussed again.