The fated year has come and gone, but "1984" remains an unsettling prophecy of the totalitarian future, when "war is peace," "freedom is slavery," "ignorance is strength" and Big Brother's unblinking eye stares down any dissenters.
The latest incarnation of George Orwell's novel -- a theatrical adaptation by Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout -- takes a while to establish itself on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. But about halfway through this multimedia production, imported from Philadelphia for a four-week run, things lock into place. Never less than interesting, this "1984" proves, in its latter stretches especially, actively involving.
The final moments -- when Orwell's hero, Winston Smith (John Shepard), is dragged into the infamous Room 101 and tortured into capitulating to an inhuman regime -- pack a wallop. It's not just the rats, either. Room 101, you may recall, is where the recalcitrant are forced to encounter their worst nightmares. In this case, Big Brother's minions have resurrected an ancient Chinese contraption -- a rat cage that slips over the head rather like a fencing mask and allows the rodents to feast on the victim's skull. The prospect reduces Smith to a screaming wreck and provides "1984" with a climax worthy of the Grand Guignol.
What makes the scene so frightening, however, is the way Smith's torturer, a high party official named O'Brien (Evan Thompson), justifies such atrocities. In Orwell's Oceania, "the thought alone is what matters," not the overt act. "Erroneous thoughts" -- those that counter the constantly revised official line -- must be extirpated. Power is not a means to an end; it is the end itself and persecution is its faithful handmaiden. Thompson, who looks a little like a fizzless version of the late Cyril Ritchard, delivers the explanation in a flat, monotonous tone that perfectly echoes the bloodless expression on his face.
This is where the horror of "1984" lies -- in the upending of logic, the absence of feeling, the purposeful inversion of basic values. Epidemics, injustice, poverty, food shortages, a swollen bureaucracy, even traffic jams are all orchestrated to keep the people in the desired state of subservience. Meanwhile, "Newspeak," the official language, is progressively shrinking the vocabulary. ("To be or to un-be, that is the un-answer" is the acceptable version of Hamlet's soliloquy.)
One can easily imagine bigger, more sophisticated renderings of "1984" than this one, which was mounted by the Wilma Theater, a 100-seat enterprise employing a combination of Equity and non-Equity artists. What is surprising is how much of Orwell's novel the company manages to pack into its production. The cast numbers only about a dozen actors in a basic set forged out of metallic junk. But once you adjust to the vest-pocket dimensions, watching the imaginative troupe get around them is a source of real satisfaction.
By using a series of stunning slide projections and film clips, and an array of sound and light effects, director Jiri Zizka actually suggests a much larger world. The approach also imposes a fair amount of fluidity on a script that is largely episodic. This "1984" won't overwhelm you. But it is likely to work its modest, steadfast way under your fingernails.
As Smith, Shepard tends to suggest the priggishness of a Tony Randall and you sometimes get the impression that his objections to this resolutely drab society are esthetic -- Oceania just isn't a very pretty place! But as he finds Big Brother closing in on him, his panic is believable.
It is Smith's love for Julia, a member of the Anti-Sex League, that prompts him to rebel. (Love is a no-no, and the regime is actively working on eradicating the orgasm.) Julia, it turns out, is also something of a rebel, although as she puts it, mostly "from the waist downward." June Stoddard plays her with appropriately carnal vulgarity and a self-centeredness that borders, less appropriately, on the ruthless.
The sex scenes, which include a brief moment of frontal nudity, are rather joyless. There is really not enough passion between these two for Big Brother to worry about. On the other hand, I suppose that can be seen as intentional -- no itch goes undetected by the omnipresent telescreens.
Morton Banks is convincing as a cultivated antique dealer who has a nasty surprise to spring on the hero. And the supporting players lend the proper amount of impersonality and brutishness to the subjugated populace. "1984" isn't exactly actorproof, but depicting, as it does, a deadened society, it can get away with less than bravura acting.
Despite the passing shortcomings, the production is worth seeing both on its own terms and as an example of the kind of work going on in the small theaters that are found in most of our major cities. Guided by two Czechoslovakian immigrants, Blanka and Jiri Zizka, the Wilma Theater is clearly a serious, high-minded company, not about to shrink before a challenge.
By importing "1984," director Peter Sellars continues to fulfil one of the mandates of the American National Theater: to make the Kennedy Center a crossroads for the grass-roots American theater. It's happening. You no longer have to travel to Chicago, New York, La Jolla or Philadelphia to stay abreast of new plays. They're coming here. As the list grows, so do the potential rewards.
1984, by George Orwell; adapted by Pavel Kohout; directed by Jiri Zizka. Set design, Phillip Graneto; scenic projection design, Jeffrey S. Brown; costumes, Pamela Keech; cinematography, Michael Bailey; lighting, James Leitner; sound, Charles Cohen and Adam Wernick; original music, Adam Wernick. With John Shepard, June Stoppard, David B. Glancey, Morton Banks, Charles Techman, Evan Thompson, Claudia Hill. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Aug. 16.