The Gamm's 1984 is Haunting, Provocative
I wish I could say I enjoyed the Gamm Theatre’s production of 1984, adapted by Nick Lane. Sure, I ended the night hunched over, chin-in-hand, engrossed by Artistic Director Tony Estrella’s striking representation of one of the most influential novels of all time. But the production was not exactly enjoyable; hauntingly provocative might be a better way to describe it.
On the whole, the play faithfully follows George Orwell’s original tale published in 1949. Big Brother, an enigmatic dictator, rules over Oceania — a post-war amalgamation of the United States and England. Big Brother’s Party slogan is “Who Controls the Past Controls the Future.”
From the very first moments of the production, the audience bears witness to Orwell’s uncanny predictions of the future — mass enthusiasm for brutal, bloody films; state-run lotteries; loss of parental authority. And it’s only the beginning. Throughout the performance, you’ll search for more parallels between Oceania and modern-day America (is it just me, or does the party’s eye logo look a little familiar?).
A raggedy Jim O’Brien, playing the protagonist Winston Smith, is at the center of the production, with four supporting actors weaving in and out of varied roles, including narrative ones. Winston opposes the Party, but doesn’t have the courage to launch any major acts of rebellion alone.
Winston's frame of mind is best demonstrated in “Two Minutes Hate,” one of the most chilling scenes of the night. During the “Hate” exercise, a chorus of “comrades” shouts aggressively at a recorded speech by Emmanuel Goldstein, the biggest enemy of the Party. Winston is at first reluctant and doesn’t contribute as much “Hate” to the collective. But after about a minute Winston joins in full force, his face as contorted with violent anger as his fellow comrades’.
Winston finally gets the courage to act after he meets the beautiful, vivacious Julia, played by Georgia Cohen, and they pursue a larger rebellion together. Though she stands out in minor roles as a comrade and a “prole” (proletariat; a low-class citizen who lives outside of the city), Cohen makes a remarkable Julia.
And so the story goes, Big Brother inevitably catches up with them. But Winston knows from that start that he will be caught and eventually killed by the Thought Police, and often tells Julia that he is “already dead.”
O’Brien truly shines in the scenes at the Ministry of Love, the government prison where Winston and Julia are detained and tortured for thought crimes. His portrayal of his character’s disorientation, initial resistance to brainwashing and final forfeiture of the certainty that 2+2=4 is deeply moving and dispiriting. O’Brien also does an excellent job with the torture scenes, specifically the electrocutions.
Richard Noble’s character, a prominent Party member and torturer, also stands out in the Ministry of Love scenes. He explains to Winston with effortless venom that the Party doesn’t seek to destroy its enemies, it seeks to change them. He is certain he will be able to transform Winston into a complacent Party member, and he does. Noble makes a great bad guy.
Jed Hancock-Brainerd also delivers an honorable performance as a fellow prisoner at the Ministry of Love, serving as a great predicator of the pain and wretchedness that Winston would soon face.
Casey Seymour Kim provides perhaps the most memorable and diverse performances of the supporting cast: a mother intimidated by her sadistic children; an intellectually disabled lunch lady; a cackling, grubby prostitute; a “prole” with an extraordinary singing voice; and a merciless guard at the Ministry of Love.
At the close of the production, a dark, and welcomed, artistic liberty was taken, straying slightly from the general understanding of the last few passages of Orwell’s novel. When the lights turned up, I felt uneasy and harbored some lingering questions, including: Is Big Brother watching me?
In addition to the performances, the Gamm will host three free forums following the Sunday matinees in May, including “Big Brother in our Hip Pocket: Social Media, Smartphones and the End of Privacy” on May 6; “Orwell on his Own Terms: Creating the World of 1984” on May 13; and “1984 in 2012: Surveillance and Oversight” on May 20.
1984 runs through May 27 at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket. $34–$42. Call 723-4266 or visit gammtheatre.org for more information.