By Carol Biederstadt
Even for theatergoers in the New York metropolitan area, dramatic performances of Orwell’s novels are few and far between. Thus, when I heard that the New York debut of George Orwell’s 1984 was to be held at the Flux Factory, a somewhat obscure venue in the borough of Queens, I was determined to see it, even though it involved a nearly two-hour trek to the theater.
Housed in a former greeting card factory, the Flux Factory, an Off-Off Broadway arts space, is easy to miss; luckily, a lone playbill, depicting a militant countenance exuding an unnerving aura of omnipotence, caught my eye. While the image was clearly suggestive of Big Brother, it was equally evocative of the Eurasian soldier whose likeness, it is mentioned in the novel, had appeared on posters plastered “all over London”. It occurred to me that the sinisterly mustachioed and goateed visage – devoid of eyes – bore a curious resemblance to both Vladimir Lenin and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu; superimposed against a background redolent of the Japanese Rising Sun flag, the image not only conjured up the terror of Big Brother, but also seamlessly melded wartime propagandist themes in a manner that seemed to allow the visual to target concurrently both Eurasia and Eastasia, the states against which Oceania alternately waged perpetual war. I found myself wondering whether the artwork was intentionally created to visually depict Doublethink.
The stark industrial interior of the Flux Factory provided an effortless backdrop for this shoestring-budget production, which employed only a handful of simple props and an improvised stage of wooden pallets on a slate grey floor. Directed by Dave Stishan, an ensemble of six immediately transported the audience to Room 101, where a voice periodically bellowed from a modern Samsung telescreen; it was there, deep in the bowels of the ironically named Ministry of Love, that Michael Gene Sullivan’s powerful stage adaptation of the novel began, paradoxically, at the end. With B. K. Dawson convincingly portraying Winston Smith, the story unraveled through a sequence of flashbacks depicting Smith’s “crimes”, and those familiar with the novel quickly learned to steady themselves for the scenes of interrogation and torture that regularly punctuated the retrospection. On the final day of the performance’s two-week run, I sat with a captivated audience of about 40 and impotently bore witness to Winston Smith’s struggle to maintain his humanity.
It has been almost seventy years since Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, yet this performance could not have felt timelier. While Sullivan’s dialogue remains, for the most part, true to the text, minor tweaks, perhaps most noticeably Julia’s use of four-letter expletives, added to the play’s surprisingly contemporary feel. In light of recent political events, the play seemed strikingly relevant and prescient, almost as reflective of the zeitgeist of 2016 as it was of that of Orwell’s imagined 1984. Perhaps the one thing that Orwell couldn’t have foreseen was that unlike Winston Smith, the people of the post-truth world of the future would be fixated on the very telescreens used to indoctrinate them.
Photograph by Carol Biederstadt:
Cast Members (back row, left to right) – Rob Mobley, Ed Brown, Jerry Brown, Jr., Atalanta Siegel, B.K. Dawson, Ben Adducchio
Director (front row, seated) – Dave Stishan
Last updated 7th December 2016
Company website with stage photographs and comments.