Review: Balagula's '1984' turns a familiar story into riveting theater

Contributing Culture WriterMarch 11, 2014 

Ryan Case plays Winston, the protagonist, in Balagula Theatre's production of 1984.

EUGENE ALEXANDER WILLIAMS

  • IF YOU GO

    '1984'

    What: Balagula Theatre's production of Michael Gene Sullivan's stage adaptation of George Orwell's novel.

    When: 8 p.m. March 11-12, 16-19

    Where: Natasha's Bistro and Bar, 112 Esplanade

    Tickets: $15-$20. Available at 1-888-927-4850 or Balagula.com.

    Also: There will be a question-and-answer session with the cast and crew after the March 11 performance.

Here's what a review of Monday night's pay-what-you-can performance of 1984 at Balagula Theatre might sound like in "newspeak." the simplistic language that Big Brother created to quell original, critical thoughts or superfluous verbiage:

Michael Gene Sullivan's staged adaptation of George Orwell's novel was plus good. The acting was doubleplus good, as was Natasha Williams' direction. Many young citizens were present. Long live theater!

Clearly, Orwell's dystopian future has no use for theater critics. Or theater. Or even art at all, except for propaganda and entertainment designed to placate the masses: fluff literature and fake news that is literally cranked out on a machine.

Rachel Lee Rogers' character, Julia, works in this industry, doling out pornography to the lowly Proletariat class considered animals. Julia's job is that of a loyal Party member helping to keep the minds of the Party pure by directing all vices toward the lower class, but she secretly retains her individual humanity and subversively claims a sense of freedom via sex. That is how she meets protagonist Winston, played by Ryan Case and at times Timothy Hull (more on that later).

The pair's affection and desire stand in contrast to the totalitarian oppression, surveillance and thought manipulation that passes for reality. This dichotomy is effectively conveyed via Williams' direction. With staging stripped of props and color, characters exist in tones of gray, costumed by Peggy Watts in a military fashion that could evoke the 1940s or 2040s or even 1984.

Williams' and Tom Willis' set design are blocks and tiers of muted grays and neutrals. The only physical items that stand out are the ones that symbolically matter most: the restraints that shock Winston when he doesn't properly confess to his crimes, notebooks of Party members who are continually monitoring everything, and two books.

The effect is the feeling that 1984 could be any place, any time, and that Big Brother is everywhere and nowhere. The result is suffocating and engrossing — and that's just from the technical aspects of the show.

Balagula's 1984 has a cast of some of Lexington's most experienced actors. Case, Rogers and Hull are joined by Adam Luckey, Daniel Morgan and Kevin Hardesty. Any of them could easily carry a show, and together they are a formidable ensemble. That is a good thing considering the atypical storytelling technique here.

Case spends much of his time partitioned to the side in a prison cell; as Winston, he is on trial for treason. Commanded by a loud voice (Ed Desiato's frighteningly authoritative voice booms from above), he is forced to retell a semi-fictionalized version of his "thoughtcrimes."

The remaining ensemble are Party members whose job is to act out the story on the rest of the stage. For much of the play, Hull plays Winston, with Case providing the narrative reflection. Sometimes Hull says dialogue as Winston, sometimes Case does. This sounds confusing, but the execution is seamless and captivating. Case's Winston is voyeur and participant. Hull's Winston, really just a citizen doing his job, is occasionally visibly shaken by the story, at times perhaps veering toward his own "thoughtcrime."

The actors fluidly weave a complex narrative web that snags the audience at the top of the second act, when Hardesty appears as O'Brien, the faux-revolutionary who deceived Winston and appears to punish him for his rebellion, all the while claiming he is trying to cure him of a mental illness.

Hardesty sinks his teeth into the disturbing spooky calm of O'Brien, a master of so-called "doublethink" (fully believing two opposing thoughts at once). The play's final scenes — in which O'Brien insists that Winston believe that he is holding up five fingers although he is holding up four — are pure psychological thriller but with haunting ramifications.

For Big Brother, it's not enough that you say the right words; you must believe them. Case's portrayal of Winston's battle for his sanity and individuality is as electrifying as it is laden with pathos. It leaves one wondering what one's own mental limits would be.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.

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