Review: 1984 at AstonRep Theatre

Review: 1984 at AstonRep Theatre

(front center) Ray Kasper with (back, l to r) Nora Lisa Ulrey, Amy Kasper, Rory Jobst and Lauren Demerath in AstonRep Theatre Company’s production of 1984. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

By Elizabeth Ellis

Last week, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. Spicer, who recently was named a visiting fellow at Harvard University, stated, “I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts. I think you can look at a set of facts and come out with one opinion and someone else can say, ‘While the facts are the same here, I come out with a different conclusion.’” This kind of bewildering double-talk has become a hallmark of the present administration and echoes a little too clearly the similar sentiments in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. In this disturbingly accurate stage adaptation by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr., and William A. Miles Jr., AstonRep Theatre Company (at the Raven Theatre) shows a frightening world that, though fictional, feels a little too uncomfortably close to recent global developments.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” This one line from his work encapsulates Orwell’s vision of a dystopian world not too far removed from the year 1949 when the book was published. After a total war, the world has been divided into three superstates: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, which continue to wage war in part to help keep an ideological hold over their citizens. In this totalitarian government, truth is a concept turned upside down: The Ministry of Peace deals with war; The Ministry of Love promotes torture. Basic human rights don’t exist anymore; neither do freedoms like that of speech and the press.

The tyrannical Big Brother, the adored and mysterious face of the ruling Inner Party, monitors all activities and behavior through telescreens installed in nearly every room in nearly every building. Protagonist Winston Smith (a conflicted but determined Ray Kasper) works in The Ministry of Truth as an editor, continually revising and manipulating history to keep in step with the wishes of the party line.

Winston secretly detests the government, and when he encounters a potential love interest and fellow subversive in his coworker, Julia (the sweet and enigmatic Sarah Lo), he finds the strength to join the Brotherhood, an anti-government resistance movement. After their superior in the Ministry, O’Brien (the sly and conniving Amy Kasper), approaches them about participating in the resistance, Winston and Julia throw themselves into the movement while promising not to betray each other. This, of course, fails. After O’Brien informs on them, the government captures them, and O’Brien tortures Winston to the point where he calls out, “Do it to Julia!” to save himself. Once reeducated and allowed to return to society, Winston lives out his days in approved admiration of Big Brother.

Designer Jeremiah Barr creates a properly unsettling and claustrophobic set, with enormous all-seeing eyes painted on the back wall, and constantly blinking cameras focused on the audience. Director Robert Tobin has assembled a talented cast and brings the audience to a world where color and joy are lost, and the horrifying has become quotidian.

The fundamental problem with 1984 as a theatrical piece is that with so much essential humanity removed from the characters, it’s difficult for the audience to care about and hope for each of them. This is not the fault of the director nor the cast, and maybe this lack of emotional investment is what Orwell intended to leave as part of his legacy.

Anyone with any worries about the present-day political climate — where infantile and megalomaniacal world leaders make significant decisions based more on their cult of personality rather than on actual facts, where empirical evidence is treated as mere opinion, where censorship of dissenting viewpoints is seen as patriotic — should see 1984, and leave frightened enough to propel them into action.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.