Review: "1984" at the Kavinoky
By ANTHONY CHASE
Before I delve into a discussion of the Kavinoky Theatre production of 1984, please forgive me if I don’t rehash why their production of To Kill a Mockingbird was cancelled. For those details, look at The New York Times, American Theatre magazine, The Buffalo News, WBFO.org, or Theater Talk Buffalo. And for God’s sake don’t make me dwell on the irony that both the current Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird and the original Broadway production of 1984 were produced by Scott Rudin!
Allow me to observe that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and George Orwell’s 1984 are both tales of lone individuals, motivated by superior values, who take risks to oppose oppressive and unjust systems.
Okay, with that out of the way, the Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan adaptation of 1984 is faithful to events of the novel, but sets the action as a kind of futuristic flashback to 1984. At least, this might be the year 1984. It might not be 1984. This might be a true story, or it might be a fiction. In any event, this is a story told from a future time when ideas are freely discussed. Oh yes, and the events that are recounted sometimes actually happened to the protagonist, Winston Smith, but some of them might be delusions or false memories.
Orwell’s novel is enjoying renewed popularity at a time when the President of the United States has stated that it is "frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” and has ominously said that "people should look into that.” He has declared that any unflattering accounts of his activities are “fake news,” has blocked entire news outlets from White House press conferences, has singled out individual journalists for verbal abuse, and has even tried to get a few reporters fired. Some liberal lunatics and left-wing extremists look upon this as some kind of threat to free speech. Crazy, right?
In any event, the current political climate seems to have served as a call for activists to protect first amendment rights, and along the way, it has also inspired renewed interest in stories like To Kill a Mockingbird, and 1984.
If you remember reading 1984 in high school – and I, ironically, cannot recall, with certainty, whether I did or didn’t – you will know that the novel tells the story of Winston Smith, who works for the government of Oceania, rewriting and destroying historical records to conform to government policy of the moment.
The Kavinoky production of the play, staged in just 19 days, under the skillful direction of Kyle LoConti, sets the action in an open playing area with a large video screen above. Two tables and a few movable set pieces glide in and out of the space with efficiency.
David King has designed the set, which is dominated by Brian Milbrand’s video design. The overall effect is very successful and advances the story effectively. It is all the more remarkable for the small amount of time available to record and assemble video segments. These are done with great invention and often with wit. A tendency to devolve into pixilation, while deliberate, sometimes seemed like a mistake. Still, the accomplishment is astonishing in such a short amount of time, and unlike the protagonist, we always know where we are.
Chris Avery, who was scheduled to play Atticus Finch, gives an engaging and moving performance as guileless Winston Smith – though the word guileless might not be quite apt for a character who, at one point, says that he would be willing to throw sulfuric acid into the face of a child to advance his cause. As Winston, Avery hurls himself into his desires for freedom and love with earnestness, sincerity, and disastrous naiveté.
The naiveté of Avery’s Winston is paired with Aleks Malejs’ knowing performance as Julia, a fellow ministry employee to whom he is attracted. He also suspects that she is a party informant. Malejs plays Julia’s layers convincingly, which provides a fun and sometimes whimsical thread in a narrative that is often harrowing.
The pleasure of 1984 is in the disturbing twists of its paranoid, dare I say “Orwellian” plot. No one is to be trusted in this world.
For those who are so inclined, a perverse pleasure can be derived from some truly outrageous, even Elizabethan onstage violence. Without spoiling the shock, this involves plenty of stage blood and simulated electrical shocks. Your squirming will be intensified if you are particularly afraid of rats.
The rehearsal time was rapid and while serviceable, not all of the interactions between characters are equally successful. Avery and Malejs are able to generate some chemistry and spontaneity. Patrick Moltane, who plays party official / underground agent “O’Brien,” conjures the requisite imperiousness and menace, but the interactions between O'Brien and Winston eventually fall into a kind of inevitable monotony. Steve Jakiel creates an endearing Gepetto of an antique shop owner as Charrington.
In the final analysis, 1984 is appropriately distressing and thought-provoking. Director Kyle LoConti and her team of designers have worked magic. The acting ensemble gives one-hundred percent, and buoyed by the adrenaline of its circumstances, the production has the spirit of a momentous occasion.