George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 seems to be a prescient work. In the past twenty years, it has been referenced repeatedly as a cautionary tale for events that are happening around us, now more than ever. So, it is no surprise that Culver City’s own Actors’ Gang is again revisiting its recent history with a revival of Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaption of Orwell’s brilliant tale for the stage. Unfortunately, it falls a bit short of matching Orwell’s brilliance.
We start on a stark stage, flanked by audience members in the round, where Winston (Will Thomas McFadden) is waking up, surrounded by four besuited individuals there to interrogate him. He has been accused of “thoughtcrime” against the government. Soon the interrogation is interrupted by a disembodied voice coming from lighted speakers in the corners asking questions. The other interrogators then become actors in a play of Winston’s life, showing both him and the audience what has brought Winston to this place. Winston resists the efforts to make him confess and soon the voice becomes flesh in the form of O’Brien (director Tim Robbins pulling double duty), who, with his presence, ups that stakes until Winston is broken and complies readily with his captors.
The production becomes much stronger and more compelling in the second half when the consequences are taken to the next level. This is a result of Sullivan’s lack of context for the first act. It is as if the action is taking place in a fishbowl, and if you are not familiar with the source material, you will struggle to have an understanding of the society beyond the interrogation. But the first half does function as effective storytelling in setting up the action that comes after intermission – action that becomes infused with a sense of heightened importance and danger. By the end, we get the underlying message of this production – the dangers of group thought, of believing what we are told by those in power without thinking for ourselves, of mob rule.
While the story falters, the cast more than makes up for this with strong and compelling performances. McFadden infuses Winston with just enough defiant humanity to allow his defeat to be devastating. Bob Turton as Party Member No. 3, Winston’s most vocal accuser, is a threatening figure. Tom Szymanski and Lee Margaret Hanson Party Members No. 1 and 2 respectively provide touching performances as the Winston stand-in and the woman he falls in love with. And understudy Ethan Corn steps into the role of Party Member No. 4 and its varied roles seamlessly. But it is the addition of Robbins as the villain of the piece that provides both the gravitas and menace to the production. He prowls the stage with a charming ease, attacking Winston in subtle ways and projecting the suave and smarmy politico that makes his character just so scary. Hollywood needs to cast him as the ultimate bad guy in a Marvel film or political thriller immediately.
In his role as director, Robbins ensures a crisp pace to the action on the stark and small performing space, which is enhanced by only by the huge monitors that overlook the stage and provide moments of “Big Brother” speaking. The space is brought to life through the actors and lighting designer’s Bosco Flanagan and sound designer’s David Robbins smart design.
Ultimately this production is a powerful message for our time.
Photo Credit – Ashley Randall, onstage Bob Turton, Thomas Szymanski, Will Thomas McFadden
Through December 7
Ivy Substation Theater
9070 Venice Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
For more info, click on the ad for the Actors’ Gang on the right side of the page (for smartphone format, pls scroll down)