Review: ‘1984’ by Scena Theatre

Big Brother. Newspeak. Thoughtcrime. Doublethink. Orwellian. Those words have floated around the public lexicon for years, and at a time when the political zeitgeist contains phrases like “alternative facts,” long-gone writer George Orwell’s (real name Eric Blair, 1903-1950) dystopian novel about a hellish totalitarian state, 1984, remains culturally pertinent. In fact, after the election of President Donald Trump, sales for 1984 increased nearly 10,000 percent.

Gary DuBreuil, Danielle Scott, Colin Davies, Kim Curtis, Karoline Troger, Oscar Ceville, Ron Litman, Buck O’Leary, Karin Rosnizeck and Sissel Bakken in 1984. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Politicos on the Right and the Left have tried to claim Orwell as their own, but he was a difficult writer to pinpoint on any political scale. Essentially, Orwell was against any form of government that sought to quash human freedom. As Orwell himself wrote: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

Scena Theatre’s stage version of the novel, 1984, directed by its 30-year Artistic Director Robert McNamara, and written by British playwright Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, associate director of London’s Almeida Theatre, is 90-minutes of political and emotional intensity that gives the audience no respite from the attention it demands.

Ron Litman’s performance as O’Brien, apparatchik and believer in the fictional “Ingsoc” political philosophy, was at turns scary, evil, and politically seductive. Litman, who has appeared in Scena’s The Night Alive and Shining City, embodied the idea that politically, “the individual is dead.” I adored Litman’s nuanced and naturalistic performance. Litman’s scenes in 1984’s infamous Room 101 with Oscar Ceville’s character, Winston, the protagonist of 1984, were some of the most wrenching I’ve seen this year.

Ceville, who appeared in Scena’s Fear Eats the Soul last year, played a vast array of emotional beats throughout his performance. Ceville effectively conveyed a man stuck in a world were the proverbial Big Brother can be watching at any moment. In a real-world in which high-tech devices like Alexa can allegedly listen to its users, he helped the audience feel Winston’s sense of alienation and paranoia. Ceville and Austrian co-star Karoline Troger, who played Winston’s love interest Julia, had a powerful connection onstage as lovers-in-peril.

Karin Rosnizeck, Oscar Ceville, Jesse Marciniak, Ron Litman, and Kim Curtis in 1984. Photo by Jae Yi Photography

An indispensable star of the show was Projection Designer and Video/Sound Producer Jesse Marciniak. He was able to project slogans from Orwell’s book, such as “Freedom is Slavery” on the drab, gray, upstage flat, which held a circular screen.

Marciniak was also able to project pre-recorded video of various actors performing various scenes within that screen. Soundwise, Marciniak played an array of yells and voiceovers, designed by Denise Rose. Johnathan Alexander’s lighting design tended toward the dark and depressing. Stage Manager Hannah Fogler kept all these technical aspects running like clockwork.

Set Designer April Joy Vester’s set was sparse and dominated by a gray pall that echoed the milieu of a totalitarian world. Costume Designer Madeline Belknap excelled when dressing the worker bees of the fictional superstate Oceania in dark-blue overalls. The scenes of angry physicality between the actors came off well thanks to Fight Choreographer Paul Gallagher.

Karin Rosnizeck, who also appeared in Scena’s Fear Eats the Soul (as Ceville’s character’s lover), excelled as Winston’s mother and in her many ensemble scenes. Her high-fashion look made her pop visually in party scenes. Yet another Fear Eats the Soul veteran, the magnificent Colin Davies, was fun to watch in his verbose lunchroom scenes, and he was riveting to watch as the pitiable, hard-luck character Parsons.

Buck O’Leary (who has appeared in Scena’s A Clockwork Orange and The War of the Worlds among others) was patrician as the host of a party that took place years after the events of the main story. Marciniak was wonderful as the hapless Thought Criminal. Gary DuBreuil (another Fear Eats the Soul alumn), Kim Curtis, Sissel Bakken, and Danielle Scott made up the rest of a well-oiled ensemble.

McNamara’s direction was flawless in that it kept the show hoping throughout the 90 minutes. Cues were caught and lines were thrown without any dead space or wasted energy. Difficult scenes like the aforementioned party, which involved many characters seemingly talking over one another worked and worked well. Dramaturg Gabriele Jakobi no doubt helped bring some of the nuances of the story onto the stage.

1984 is a slap-in-the-face, cold-water splash that will earn many standing ovations throughout its run. I put this show in my circle of Golden Age of Great DMV-Area Shows for 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

1984 plays through May 27, 2018, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-339-7993, or purchase them online.

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One Response to Review: ‘1984’ by Scena Theatre

  1. T.W. Horn May 7, 2018 at 3:46 pm #

    I loved the production and highly recommend it. It was one of the most atmospherically creepy shows I’ve ever seen, which I believe is exactly what you want in a stage adaptation of “1984.” My one critical note is in regards to the characterization of Julia. Karoline Troger did a fine job (as did the rest of the cast) portraying the bleak demeanor of the downtrodden citizenry of a totalitarian world. However, my understanding of the story is that Winston Smith is drawn to Julia because of her unabashed joy in utilizing sex as a form of political rebellion, and that metaphoric “I’m doing this to say ‘Screw you, Big Brother!'” ecstasy never truly came across. I don’t know if that was director Robert McNamara’s choice or the actor’s. Either way, I believe it was a missed opportunity to dramatize the allure of revolt that draws so many to risk their very lives standing up to the powers that be.

    Still, it’s a worthy production and great piece of theater.

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