THE BASICS: 1984, the dystopian novel by George Orwell, adapted for the stage by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, directed by Kyle LoConti, starring Chris Avery, Aleks Malejs, Shanntina Moore, John Profetta, Robyn Baun, Johnny Rowe, Xavier Harris, Steve Jakiel, Paul Maisano, and Patrick Moltane runs through April 7, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, Sundays at 2 at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue (829-7668). Full-service bar and snacks in the main floor lounge.www.kavinokytheatre.com Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is the story that you read (or as director LoConti told WBFO news claimed to have read) in high school about Winston Smith and his lover Julia who, as they work for the “Ministry of Truth” dream of destroying the ruling party and “Big Brother” but start with their own intimate crime of falling in love, love that is forbidden by the “Ministry of Love.” All the familiar 1984 concepts of totalitarianism are here, including surveillance (“Big Brother is watching you”), “doublethink” (believing something to be true when you know that it is false including willing yourself to believe that “2+2=5” if that’s what the party wishes), “newspeak” (removing words from the language that do not serve the interests of the state), “thoughtcrimes” (you can be publicly executed for your thoughts and even dreams), “memory holes” (ways to erase history or personnel records which might be embarrassing to the state), “Room 101” – the place where your worst fears are used against you to break your spirit, and the “Two Minute Hate” which should be familiar to every user of social media where for two minutes, on cue, the entire populace engages in a visceral, public display of extreme disapproval of some person, and then promptly moves on with their lives. The on-stage action is framed as a college class studying 1984.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: In the program notes we read: “1984 swept back into bestseller status in January 2017 after President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway used the phrase ‘alternative facts.’ Trump’s ‘fake news’ slurs were called freakishly Orwellian by some – but Conway’s redefinition of a word to serve the interests of the state seemed to many as ‘newspeak’ to a tee.”
My favorite reference to this time when President Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer falsely exaggerated the attendance at Trump’s inauguration came from Buffalo News/New York Times/Washington Post writer Margaret Sullivan who wrote: “…Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told ‘Meet the Press’ Sunday that Spicer had been providing ‘alternative facts’ to what the media had reported, making it clear we’ve gone full Orwell.”
And the “alternative facts” just keep on comin’ with Donald Trump himself averaging 15 lies per day, according to the Washington Post and other news sources. “Full Orwell.” There’s an old saying: “The two best times to plant a tree are, first, 20 years ago, and second, right now.” So, if there were ever a time to revisit 1984, if not right after Donald Trump’s inauguration, it’s today.
Thank you Kavinoky and congratulations on a speedy 19-day turnaround to the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD issue well-reported including WBFO coverage and the New York Times national coverage which reported on February 28 that across America “theaters are caught in the middle of a dispute between the Lee estate and Dramatic Publishing Company, founded in 1885, which sells theaters the rights to put on the play.”
Within 19 days, the Kavinoky had a completely different production ready to go, and a rather technically dazzling production at that. Let’s take a moment right here to praise the 1984 production team, including one of Buffalo’s best ensemble directors – Kyle LoConti – and production stage manager Norm Sham who had a whole lotta moving parts to keep on track. Kudos as well to the crew who put this production together, including a new set by David King, aided by the large back stage video created by Brian Milbrand (some of it pre-recorded, lots of it “live” using mini-cams), effective lighting by Brian Cavanagh, spooky sound design by Geoffrey Tocin, properties by Diane Almeter Jones, fight direction by Adriano Gatto, and costumes by Jessica Wegryzyn, who, I hope, put laundry expenses in her budget because, spoiler alert, there will be blood.
Since 1984, many dystopian novels have been written, many for young adults, and many of those have been turned into blockbuster movies with strong female leads, including The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, both concerning a plucky teenager who follows the well-trod hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Cambell. However, if you, as I did, mis-remember or conflate 1984 by George Orwell with those recent book and movie series and are looking for a clear and redemptive ending, you may be disappointed.
Winston and Julia do complete the hero’s journey, in a way, but it’s not a Hollywood, feel-good, end-title-music swells to a climax way. George Orwell isn’t going to make this easy, and neither were the play adapters Icke and Macmillan, and neither is the Kavinoky. And, neither is the character named “Host,” expertly played by Johnny Rowe, who is that memorable college professor we’ve all had who kept asking questions so that even when you came to class thinking you knew what was going on, you left class perplexed, wondering if perhaps it’s true that “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” Ah, those professors and their ways.
Many other Buffalo favorite actors were on stage, including Chris Avery as the protagonist “Winston.” Avery has been very funny and charming in other roles, but in this dreary dystopian world, while that special charm of his wasn’t allowed to be overt, casting such a likeable actor kept us engaged and hoping that, perhaps, there would be an “alternative ending” to the play. Aleks Malejs as “Julia” once again does a fine job as a haunted woman (as she was in SIVE, GROUNDED, and THE CRUCIBLE) – a woman with considerable agency, but doomed nonetheless. And the real standout for me was Patrick Moltane as “O’Brien” – a complex character who pretty much drives the action in the second act. Moltane has a very distinctive voice and a consistent energy that I thoroughly enjoyed. I can still hear his delivery of such lines as “You asked me once what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.”
We live in anxious times. It’s easy to blame Donald Trump, and he is a source of great concern, but his election was but a symptom of our age of anxiety that has led to the Brexit mess, a resurgence in white supremacy, mass shootings, the opioid epidemic, and a marked increase in suicide, just to identify some other problems more vexing than Trump.
This is quite a production and since it’s probably been awhile since you read (or said that you read) 1984, you should go and get a refresher course in how totalitarian governments operate. To quote one of my favorite bumper stickers: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
UP NEXT: The Kavinoky Theatre’s fundraiser “The Kavinoky Kabaret” in the panoramic view from the 6th floor of the D’HYouvill Academic Center with “The Louis Prima Tribute Band” featuring bandleader Jim Runfola and vocalists Norm Sham and Debbie Pappas.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!