By Philip Pearce
Paper Wing Theatre is offering a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, a fictional classic that has given the English language terms like “Big Brother is Watching You,” “newspeak” and “thoughtcrime.”
It’s an impressively mounted production. Opening scenes are boxed into bland, grayish-purple walls fitted out with telescreens of Ron Cohen as the face of the ever-watchful Big Brother, arch dictator of the dystopian oligarchy Oceania. Loudspeakers belch out whatever “truths” the central committee wants to pump into the Oceaniac masses, from sanitized news stories to group calisthenics. The set walls then fold back to expose smaller playing areas such as offices and bedrooms. The printed program does not identify the creator of this impressive design, but my guess is that it’s Paper Wing pioneer Lj Brewer, and that Jordan Brewer, listed as the student director, is his son.
The show works well in its first act, which deals with the specifics of Orwell’s scary political satire and flounders in its second, when it focuses on its skewed abstractions.
Eduard Couttolene plays Winston Smith, employed at the Oceanian “Ministry of Truth,” with an earnest anxiety that foreshadows the horrors that await him as the story progresses.
Penelope Morgan, competent and insightful as ever, is touching and believable as Julia, a newcomer to Winston’s team. Winston’s efforts, helped by a language-savvy co-worker named Syme, played with engaging boyish intensity by Raleigh Welch, to teach Julia a government sanctioned perversion of English called Newspeak are darkly comic. So are Mark Cunningham’s frantic roly-poly mood swings in the role of Parsons, a Truth Ministry workmate who struggles to adjust and re-adjust to shifts in government propaganda, and a hyper-orthodox gun-toting daughter named Gladys, played with demonic gusto by Maris Welch.
So far so good. It’s in Part Two that I felt things began to drag. In the newcomer Julia, Winston has now found not only a fellow dissident but a romantic life partner. They have moved from all that nagging lower middle-class surveillance to the old-fashioned world of the despised lower class “prols.” I found the couple’s domestic life, as depicted by whoever did the adaptation (no program credit there either), conventional and repetitious. The Smiths tell each other and the rest of us once or twice too often how cozy they find their new digs and how satisfying they find their new freedom from government spying. It’s only when a government hit squad crashes in and shatters their cockney blue heaven dream that the second act briefly takes off dramatically…
…then bogs down again with Winston’s physical and psychological torture at the hands of O’Brien, a government big-shot who posed in Act 1 as a fellow dissident. The aim of each of O’Brien’s torture sessions is to expunge some bit of Winston’s logic and replace it with a new piece of Big Brother skewed political philosophy. The crackling electric shocks he pumps into Winston’s brain are vivid, and Couttolene is a convincingly scary victim. But O’Brien’s accompanying rhetoric gets lost in the screams and explosions. Readers of the novel have time and opportunity to read these abstractions, put the book aside, reflect on their significance and understand what area of western collectivist thinking Orwell is attacking. Voiced by an actor, even one as urbanely sinister as Phil Livernois, these expressions of the story’s meaning are just puzzling words accompanying repeated bouts of explosive sadism that go on too long and gradually lose even their ability to shock.
1984 continues at Paper Wing’s New Monterey site at 320 Hoffman Avenue July 25 and 26 at 8 pm.