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Adaptation Review: 1984 at the American Repertory Theater

February 27, 2016 2 comments

FullSizeRenderIt’s impossible to talk about a theatrical adaptation of a book without discussing spoilers, so if you haven’t ever read 1984, you might want to go pick up a copy and read it and come back to this review later.

(And by might want to I mean my god, reader, how have you not? Get thee to it!)

The American Repertory Theater (ART) is a really cool theater in Cambridge, MA (right in Harvard Square) that brings a lot of brand-new and often experimental theater to the area. Previously I’ve seen The Heart of Robin Hood (before it was a Broadway play, so when it was still in its developmental phase) and another adaptation of a book–Wild Swans (review). I keep an eye out for plays coming to the ART that might appeal to my husband and I. When I got the email about the new adaptation of 1984, I forwarded it to him, and he immediately confirmed yes, let’s get tickets.

We’ve both read 1984 but not in around 10 years. My husband immediately noted the precisely 101 minute running time. I had forgotten the torture room is room 101 in 1984. I’m glad he noticed this. There were other send-ups to it throughout the play.

When you arrive for 1984, the ushers notify you that there are strobes, gunshot noises, and also no intermission or readmittance. We were expecting the first two but were a bit thrown by the last. Since we both just had a nasty bout of food poisoning, we were a bit anxious about no intermission or readmittance. We joined literal throngs of people at the bathrooms, who were all also anxious about the whole thing and then found our seats.

I would be amiss not to mention that about 2 weeks before the show, the ART called us and told us that during pre-production they discovered that one of the (cheap in the back) seats we’d originally bought was going to be obstructed by some tech needed for the show. They gave us new better seats, in the center and only a few rows back. A great upgrade, for free. In any case, let’s get down to the actual show.

1984 is a production that truly embraces the futuristic, tech-heavy dystopia depicted in 1984 the book. It incorporates technology from the instant it starts, and from the moment patrons walk into the building, there is a sense of ominous foreboding. The entire 101 minutes is done on one stage with a single incorporated set change (which was amazing, and I will get to in a minute) and with 9 actors.

The set originally consists of a room with a table and some chairs. There is paneling at the back of the room. Half of this is see-through glass, so you can see characters coming to the door in the middle. On one side of the room is the ominous telescreen, which you can actually see glowing periodically. There is another door near the telescreen. Over all of this is a giant screen that is used to incorporate really cool tech. At first I thought it was pre-recorded film being shown on this screen, but later it becomes evident that at least some of it is being shot live via CCTV on various areas of the stage. As an example of how this screen is incorporated, at the beginning of the show, when Winston starts writing in his journal, the screen shows the words being written upon the page.

This single set is used to show Winston (the main character) at home, at work, and later in the countryside. I particularly enjoyed how the show just goes for it with the countryside. They declare they are in the country, there are sound-effects of birds, and then it’s really easy to believe they are in the country. My husband enjoyed the glowing yellow lights and sound-effects of a train chugging the show uses to transition here.

Those who have read the book will realize that the earlier scenes of Winston at home, work, and in the countryside end up being recollections and thoughts while he is in prison with the Ministry of Love being tortured periodically in room 101. We weren’t sure how they were going to handle this transition without an intermission, but it was awesome.

Throughout the beginning of the play, Winston and Julia go through a door on the side of the stage to the room of safety that they rent out that supposedly has no telescreens in it. When they are in the room, the audience views what is occurring via the screen on top of the stage through what appears to be CCTV. When it is revealed that they are caught (which is super spooky how it is done in the play), pieces of the set either lift up or slide to the side (I can’t remember which) to reveal behind the wall at the back is the actual bedroom set. So this is where they have been going to actually act out the bedroom scenes. The secret police who come in to arrest them also change the set. It is violent, brutal, and awesome. They ultimately change the set to be what appears to be an empty stage but then when Winston is brought into room 101, bright lights reveal white everywhere. It’s a glowing white room, which is perfect for the eeriness of the torture.

What about the acting? The acting was so good throughout the various set changes and tech that I didn’t really notice it, which I personally think is one of the best complements you can pay an actor. If you get so sucked into the world that you forget acting is even going on, then it’s good acting. I will add that multiple characters play various roles, and I didn’t notice, which is also a complement.

So let’s get to the most…memorable/impactful part of the show. The torture scene towards the end. I thought this was splendidly done. I am not one who ever really forgets that I’m watching a play, so I didn’t have the visceral horror I would have if I was seeing pictures or videos from actual real live torture, but the combination of the set and the costumes of the torture assistants (they’re wrapped in white suits that remind me of the yellow suits in Breaking Bad, if you’ve seen that), and the interrogator’s entire presence generated a real feeling of dread and horror.

If you are concerned about the “torture,” basically the interrogator gives an order (ie “fingers”), the people in white grab their instruments and come up to Winston. There’s a big sonic boom while the lights flash out, then the lights turn on and the results of torture appear, in the case of fingers, it’s blood on Winston’s fingertips. It was good, but it was obviously theater.

That said (bare in mind there was no readmittance) right around the first torture (there are three), people in the audience started bailing out. I heard later that around 20 people bailed out. I personally saw about 7. But, I will say, this was about 10 minutes from the end of the play, so it’s also possible at least some of them just really needed to use the restroom (this is a play without intermission right after most of us went to dinner). I heard later that one woman in the audience actually threw up in her purse, but to be fair, she could have been sensitive to strobes, and there are a lot of strobes in the show. My husband and I were generally flummoxed by the number of people bailing. Did they somehow know nothing about the plot of 1984 before they went? Were they that easily disturbed? It’s torture, but again, it’s theatrical torture. I know there’s nothing the ART can do about people walking out, but it did irritate me some just because it was distracting.  However, it is also a hilarious story to tell people, and most people I’ve mentioned it to just think it makes the play sound more bad-ass (which it totally is).

We really only had a few points of feedback after the show. First, we wished that the scene when Julia and Winston are in the countryside and start to undress to have sex for fun and fight Big Brother that way had taken the undressing further. Given the violence, big booms, and large tech in the show, as well as the general point in the scene about Big Brother being afraid of orgasms, we felt that leaving shirts on just didn’t take things far enough. Additionally, we were both a bit disappointed that there were no actual rats in the show. We get how difficult it can be to wrangle animals, but I did think there’d be at least some video or disturbing images of rats, and there is not. To be fair, our ability to be freaked out by rats is really mitigated by living in Boston. I see at least one rat a week when I’m commuting. And they’re big ones. Finally, we thought that the clock in the room reading 1:01 was a bit too cute.

Overall, this is really cool experimental theater. Attending it won’t be like any other play you’ve attended. Come prepared to be a bit anxious for 101 minutes and maybe dehydrate yourself a bit ahead of time so you can last the full time without intermission. Personally, I think this is a beautiful adaptation of 1984 that really lives up to the spirit and intent of the book, while using modern tech and trends to keep it relevant.

 

Book Review: Shadrach in the Furnace by Robert Silverberg (Audiobook narrated by Paul Boehmer)

Silhouette of man standing in front of what appears to be an oil rig.Summary:
After a giant volcanic eruption led to chaos and the virus wars, the world came under a one world government led by Genghis Mao based out of Mongolia.  The virus wars also led to everyone being infected with organ rot, a condition that simply spontaneously starts whenever it feels like it.  Only those working close to the government get the antidote.  Shadrach Mordecai, an African-American, went straight from Harvard Med to being the personal doctor for the world dictator.  He has implants that allow him to monitor Genghis Mao’s health through his own body, plus he is overseeing the three projects pursuing a way to keep Mao alive forever.  But when Project Avatar, which would involve implanting Mao’s brain into a new body, loses its prime candidate, Shadrach realizes his position as aid to Mao might not be keeping him as safe as her previously believed.

Review:
One of my all-time favorite books, The World Inside (review), is by Robert Silverberg, so I decided I should start working on reading all of his writings.  So when I saw this Silverberg book on Audible, I immediately knew where my June membership credit would be going.

There are quite a few things that make this piece of scifi stick out.  First, out of the four main characters, three are people of color.  Shadrach is black, Mao is obviously Mongolian, the head of Project Avatar is Native American (Navajo, I believe), and the head of the project seeking to put Mao into a robot body is headed by a white European woman.  It’s an incredibly diverse cast that I really enjoyed.  Plus, Shadrach gets it on with both Nikki Crowfoot and Katya (Native and European, respectively).  There’s also the fascinating fact that Mao, who previously only wanted a Mongolian body, is totally into the idea of putting his brain into the body of strong, young black man.  You could read this one of two ways: either as a scifi slave narrative (Mao owning Shadrach’s body) or as a progressive future where skintone doesn’t matter but the leaders still manage to be totally evil.

The scifi in the book is incredibly strong.  Silverberg obviously did his brain and infectious diseases research.  It was akin to reading abstracts from medical journals when Shadrach was talking about the various medical things going on with Mao’s body and with organ rot in the general population.

Religion is dealt with in an interesting manner.  Most people seem to be more religious.  Even the “secular” government workers follow the new religion, whose name I can’t remember I’m afraid, that involves monks and taking hallucinatory drugs.  It’s obviously an idea of a futuristic religion born out of the 1970s in which it was written, but it works within the imaginary future it exists within.

Central to the novel is Shadrach’s struggle with the Hippocratic Oath.  He is sworn to repeatedly save the life of an evil dictator who is willfully withholding an antidote to organ rot from the general population.  It’s obviously an intense moral dilemma and the scifi setting helps the reader look at it with less emotion than if, say, we were talking about a modern setting wherein Shadrach was working for a neo-Nazi or something.

One thing that does date the book is that Silverberg made the choice of giving an exact year for when all of this is going down, and that year is 2012.  I did find it an odd bit of serendipity that I just so happened to pick up this book in 2012.  In a sense, then, for the modern reader it’s more like reading an alternate history.  What *would* have happened if a huge natural disaster had occurred in the 1990s?  Whereas in a book like 1984, it’s still the same book for modern readers as for the original readers (you just ignore the date), here the date actually has an impact on the reading of the story.  The reading is different now than it probably was for people in the 1970s, but it still works.  Just in a different way.

I did feel the pacing is a bit off in the book.  It’s a bit up and down.  There were a couple of moments earlier in the story that had the intensity level of almost a climax, whereas the climax feels….less climaxy.  It took some of the tension out for me, even though I was pleased with the ultimate ending.  This did make it ideal for an audiobook, though, since it was easier to come and go from it as I had time to listen.  Related to the pacing issue, although most of the book is third person Shadrach’s perspective, there are a few chapters that are first person Mao’s perspective.  Those threw me a bit.  I’m still not sure how I felt about them.  I honestly think it would take a second read in print to get a real vibe for that dynamic.

Speaking of the audiobook, the narrator, Paul Boehmer, does a phenomenal job.  He gets many different accents spot on without ever seeming to be racist.  He also does a great job differentiating between who is speaking and thinking and what have you.  He also did an admirable job narrating the sex scenes.  The tonality of his voice is spot on for the intimacy and excitement.  I would gladly listen to another book he’s narrated.

Overall then this is an interesting piece of scifi that was originally written as futuristic and now reads as alternate history.  It features a diverse, three-dimensional cast and provides a great setting for the moral dilemma of helping those who would harm others.  I recommend it to fans of scifi that addresses moral issues.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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