Our American correspondent Carol Biederstadt crossed the continent from her East Coast base wondering what a small company in Spokane, Washington State, could offer in a production of 1984. Read on and discover that she found a production that was not only “both current and timeless”, but one that required an even larger vocabulary.
1984 On stage in Spokane, Washington
by Carol Biederstadt
Finding out that someone has traveled 3,286 miles to see your production of George Orwell’s 1984 with the intention of reporting on it for the Orwell Society might put a bit of pressure on some small theater companies, but not on director Chris Wooley and the six cast members of his recent production of Orwell’s novel, who were confident they could hold their own against any Orwellite. The show opened to a full house at Spokane’s Stage Left Theater on Friday, September 7 and ran for three weeks, closing on September 23rd.
Photograph by Carol Biederstadt
Despite the stark “WARNING” on the front of the playbill – “DISTURBING CONTENT – MATURE AUDIENCES – NUDITY – VIOLENCE – LANGUAGE ” – there was a surprisingly high-spirited pre-show buzz in the lobby of this 70-seat venue, which made me wonder how many of these theatergoers had read Orwell’s novel and knew what they were in store for. Sure enough, the festive mood quickly dissipated when the show began. Following the Michael Gene Sullivan adaptation of the novel, the action begins at the end of the story, and the curtain rises with Winston Smith, played by Rio Zavala, shackled to a wall of a grey torture chamber in the Ministry of Love; a voice, transmitted from an eerie eye mounted on the wall (this production’s unique version of the ever-present telescreen), interrogates him, driving the narrative with the question: “How did it begin?” and forcing the agonized Winston to relive his past.
Rio Zavala as Winston Smith (Photograph by Chris Wooley)
Zavala is no typical Winston Smith, however, and at the outset I was doubtful of his ability to pull off this role: he seemed too young, too virile, too sensuous to play the worn-out and world-weary middle-aged Winston. His initial responses to his inquisitor seemed at times sarcastic – even petulant – but his performance soon made me abandon my initial reservations. He is a Winston of the new millennium, perhaps, but he is pure Winston nonetheless. Paradoxically, with a cast playing multiple roles, he is not the only Winston the audience sees, and as Winston’s story is revealed, Dahveed Bullis takes on the main role, threatening to steal Zavala’s thunder with a stellar performance as the alter-ego of the captive Winston.
While Winston is clearly the focal point of the play, he never overshadows the other characters, and this is in part due to the Sullivan adaptation itself. Says Director Wooley:
Most other theatrical versions focus on the pain and struggle of Winston as the primary plot device, which is powerful on its own. However, the Sullivan version compliments Winston’s experiences by allowing the Party Members to not only observe his struggle, but also relate to it. As a director, I found the dynamic to be particularly useful in providing a relevant experience for the audience. . . . Similar to how a laugh track helps a TV audience know what is funny, seeing Party Member reactions to the torture, betrayal, and Big Brother’s absolute power clues the theatrical audience to particularly pivotal moments. Ultimately, I believe the format and devices in Sullivan’s script allow the staged story of 1984 to be just as powerful as the story in the book.
And Wooley may be right; for sure, the entire cast is superb: Aubree Peterson, doubling as Julia and a party member, is hard-edged and cold, and Kyle Ross, another party member, is especially memorable as one of the Parsons children whining about not getting to watch the hanging. Herron Davidson, who also juggles roles, provides the audience some much needed comic relief when he switches from his usual singing voice to a high-pitched falsetto – exasperation written all over his face – when portraying Winston’s memory of a crooning Prole: “a woman,” as Winston clarifies. The production saves one of its big guns for last, though, when J.P. O’Shaughnessy (who, incidentally, bears the same surname as Orwell’s first wife, Eileen) finally shows his face, revealing the voice that has been emanating from the telescreen is in fact that of O’Brien. O’Shaughnessy is at once avuncular yet utterly menacing – the very embodiment of doublethink. Yet the doublethink doesn’t stop there; the entire play is steeped in it: the dark-haired girl, for example, is a platinum blonde, and Winston, who complains of feeling “old, scrawny, and pale” is youthful, sinewy, and swarthy. True to Orwell’s novel, nothing is exactly what it seems.
J P O’Shaughnessy as O’Brien (Photography Chris Wooley)
Surprisingly, I later learned that this hauntingly vivid performance almost wasn’t to be at all, and Stage Left, a nonprofessional theater, needed to do some negotiating in order to obtain the rights to perform this play. Referring to these rights provisos and the confusion surrounding them, an article in an issue of Spokane’s Inlander claimed: “Orwell’s estate restricts nonprofessional theaters to just one version of the play – not the first time, incidentally, that the estate has lent itself an air of Big Brother.” Ouch! But that was only partially accurate.
The fact is that in 1962, Orwell’s second wife and widow, Sonia Brownell, licensed exclusive amateur rights to Nineteen Eighty-Four to Dramatic Publishing Company in the US for the term of the copyright: a long and fixed period which some have attributed to her naiveté regarding publishing rights. (By comparison, just before his death, Orwell licensed the stage rights to Nineteen Eighty-Four to Sidney Sheldon for a fixed term, after which the rights reverted to Orwell.) Thus, while many professional adaptations are used worldwide, amateur productions are usually required to use the 1962 version by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall, Jr. and William A. Miles, Jr. unless they receive permission to do otherwise.
And Chris Wooley was determined to do otherwise. As he explained, “The selection of this version came purely by accident.” Stage Left, it seems, had originally chosen another adaptation of the play to perform, but in a mix-up, Wooley was somehow given the Sullivan version and was immediately hooked: “I read the show and loved the creative take on presenting the story – particularly for an intimate theatre.” Wooley thus “fought hard for the theatre to change the version to Sullivan’s,” and after much negotiating, his wish was granted.
Photograph by Carol Biederstadt
And it’s a good thing it was. Bare-boned with no tricks or gimmicks, Stage Left’s production of this Orwell classic felt both current and timeless (no doublethink intended). Superbly acted, it was, simply put: doubleplusgood.
The Company (Photograph by Chris Wooley)
Thanks: Chris Wooley, Michael Gene Sullivan, Bill Hamilton of A.M Heath, Richard Blair, and Neil Smith, Secretary of the Orwell Society.
Uploaded: Sunday 21st October 2018