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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.

 

Movie Review: Red Riding Hood (2011)

March 16, 2011 6 comments

Woman wearing red cape in front of woods.Summary:
Valerie has always lived in a small village surrounded by a dark forest haunted by a werewolf every month at the full moon.  For the last ten years the wolf has kept the peace with the town by accepting a sacrifice of a beloved livestock.  Now Valerie is a woman and planning on eloping with her lover, Peter, to escape an undesired marriage to the smith’s son, Henry.  Just as they are about to elope, though, Valerie’s sister is found dead.  The victim of the wolf.  Now the town brings in a priest of questionable character in an attempt to rid them of the curse once and for all.

Review:
To me this film was truly all about atmosphere, being a feast for the eyes like the village is a feast for the wolf.  Although the first few moments of the film are set in harvest time, the rest of it is during winter, complete with beautiful snowfall scenes.  The village itself is simultaneously sinister and picturesque.  What truly makes the atmosphere though is the costuming.  Gorgeous elbow-length knitted gloves.  Covetable dresses with the perfect waist-length.  Sleeveless cloaks worn by all in demure shades that truly make Valerie’s red cloak pop when she receives it from her grandmother.  The entire atmosphere screams fairy tale.

The story was of course re-written with red riding hood made into a young woman instead of a little girl.  The character of the wolf became more complex than just the big bad wolf in the woods.  However, the key creepy elements of the fairy tale remain.  In all honesty, I was surprised at how good of an updated adaptation this was, and I’ve seen my fair share of fairy tale adaptations.

The one draw-back was the awkward love triangle inserted into the story.  There was one scene in particular that simply screamed “This director also directed Twilight!”  Ugh.  I’m getting incredibly sick of love triangles existing in any story that features young adults.  Plus this scene elicited laughter from the audience, which I am pretty sure was not what the director was going for.

Overall, however, this was a delightful adaptation of a beloved fairy tale.  I recommend it to lovers of fairy tales and adaptations, as well as those who enjoy an exquisite atmosphere in film.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: AMC movie theater

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Movie Review: Kick-Ass (2010)

September 2, 2010 7 comments

Four superhero faces.Summary:
Highschooler Dave wonders why no one in real life ever tried to be a super-hero, so he orders a wet suit, dubs himself “Kick-Ass” and sets out to attempt vigilante justice.  Lucky for him in his ineptitude, someone has thought of being a a superhero–ex-cop Big Daddy and his 9 year old daughter Hit Girl.  Their activities land them on the mob’s hit list, and pandemonium ensues.

Review:
This is a concept–blundering wannabe superheroes–that could easily fall flat on its face, but it doesn’t.  The addition of Big Daddy and Hit Girl to the scene really change the entire feel of the movie.  They’re not so much superheroes as vigilantes–think Kill Bill only with superhero costumes. They bring reality back into Kick-Ass’s daydreaming.  In the real world, fighting the bad guys often have serious consequences.  It’s not all youtube glory.

This was based on a graphic novel, and the bright colors in the costumes help bring that feel in.  The fight sequences aren’t stylized like anime, rather they feel like a typical action movie, but that was a wise choice given the basic message in the movie.  Shots are smooth and stylish without reading as cartoonish.

Apparently, some people find the character of Hit Girl offensive.  This surprised me since she was by far my favorite in the film.  Where I see her as possessing admirable grit, raw talent, and a propensity to speak her mind others see a little girl killing people and using the c-word.  I think those people are taking things a bit too seriously.  Hit Girl is clearly a little girl who enjoys what she does and is being true to herself.  Little girls aren’t always sugar and spice and everything nice.

Overall, Kick-Ass is a fun movie that will appeal to fans of superhero and action films alike.  I highly recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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Movie Review: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

November 9, 2009 3 comments

I love horror films, and I’d been meaning to watch this classic for quite some time.  Netflix is so good for making you finally get around to seeing movies you’ve always meant to see.

posterrosemarysbabySummary:
Rosemary and her actor husband move into a new apartment despite protestations from a friend that the building has a bit of a history of odd things happening.  Their new neighbors are a friendly, elderly couple.  In fact, Rosemary finds them to be a bit too friendly, but her husband likes them and insists the friendship be kept up.  Soon Rosemary is pregnant, but there is something odd about her pregnancy she can’t quite put her finger on until it is too late.

Review:
This is the type of horror story I love.  Something sinister lurking in the background of the main character’s life.  Everyone around her telling her she’s the crazy one or that she’s paranoid with only the main character and the viewer seeing what’s really going on.  This gives such a different scared vibe than the more typical, oh we’re in a scary hotel room for one night ahhh.

The cinematography has that classic 1960s feel that I personally love.  Maybe there’s a technical term for it, I don’t know, but it’s that awkward shot.  Instead of every shot being perfectly clean cut like in modern films, the actors aren’t always in center and focused.  People are off to the side.  It gives almost a mockumentary film feeling without any of those staged interviews.

Mia Farrow’s acting is truly excellent.  Her facial expressions show the wheels turning in her head even when other characters are in the room with Rosemary.  You can see how Rosemary senses something is wrong, yet she isn’t sure what exactly.

Ruth Gordon, playing the elderly neighbor woman, also offers up an excellent acting job.  She plays to perfection that horribly annoying elderly woman who everyone else finds delightful but you just want to stop touching your throw pillows.  It may seem like an easy part to play, but it is a fine line to walk, and she executes it perfectly.

I think what kept me from loving the movie as opposed to just really liking it were the odd dream sequences.  These too have a classic 1960s feel, but not in a good way.   They feel fake, and jerked me out of the world I had been sucked into.  I think most of the dream sequences could have been done without.

There is no way to discuss the social commentary this movie makes without giving away a massive spoiler, so let me just say that women’s agency is central to the plot of this film and is one of the main reasons I liked it.

If you enjoy horror, 1960s cinematography, or subtle social commentary, you will enjoy this film.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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