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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.

 

Why BookSwim Is Bad for Reading

October 13, 2009 15 comments

BookSwim is a business that essentially claims to be the book version of Netflix.  I’d been to their website a few months ago, but when someone reposted it on Twitter I revisited.  I was immediately struck by how the whole thing bothers me.  After a bit of pondering, I realized why.

BookSwim is attempting, subtly, to become a monopoly in the supply of books.

They claim to be more convenient and better than borrowing from a local library, cheaper than buying books, and more trustworthy than eReaders.  They also claim to be better than swapping services like SwapTree, since you’ll be getting new or barely used books instead of old copies.  However, they understand you may still want to buy a book, so you always have the option of buying a book you have rented from them and then just not returning it.  Soon, all you will need for books is a BookSwim account.

Everyone knows monopolies are bad from an economic standpoint.  Where there’s a monopoly there’s horribly high prices, and the item being offered becomes a mark of wealth rather than something everyone uses.  However, I see a monopoly of this type as dangerous to literacy, intellectualism, and even freedom.

How easy would it be to censor what the public reads if everyone attains their information from the same book provider?  Can you imagine the nightmare for freedom of thought it would be if one congolmerate controlled all collection development for an entire nation?  Already they claim to have almost every book you would ever want to read, yet when I searched for five books on my to be read list, only the most recently published one (this year) was held by BookSwim.  (Most of the other were from 1960s to the 1980s, though one was a classic).  They claim to be willing to buy any book they don’t have that you want, but I honestly am skeptical about this.  Maybe I’ve received too many promises like that from cell phone providers, but I can just see the “sorry, there wouldn’t be enough demand to warrant the price” email now.

I know most users wouldn’t limit themselves to just BookSwim for getting their books.  At least not right now.  Yet this scenario of a Big Brother monopoly over where we can acquire our books is clearly what BookSwim wants.

“But, Amanda,” I can hear you saying, “Shouldn’t a business want to become a great succcess?”  Well, yes, but they could have come up with a business model that is more supportive of the community of reading and learning.  A website such as IndieBound, for instance, that makes it easy for users to find local independent bookstores.

Reading and learning isn’t just about “Oh I got this book that’s popular right now, and it came so conveniently in my mail.”  Reading and learning are about the journey and the connections.  When I go to my local independent bookstore and browse for something to read, I not only get a used book cheap, but I also chat with the owner and other browsers.  I leave knowing that my book came from someone else in the community.

I like knowing that the books I read come from many sources.  I use the local public library, borrow from friends, buy used from indie bookstores, buy new copies, receive ARCs from LibraryThing and blogs, and plan to swap via SwapTree in the near future.  My knowledge-base is fluid and about a community.  It isn’t one business that ships my books to me in the mail.  It’s the various communities of readers that overlap and interact to make for my own unique learning experience.  If a company such as BookSwim did become a monopoly, I would lose all that, and that is one of my favorite aspects of reading.

Your Job as a Librarian

April 1, 2009 5 comments

I’m a librarian, currently working on my master’s degree. Some people are concerned about technology being the downfall of libraries. Observing my fellow classmates makes me far more concerned that they will be the downfall of librarianship.

There’s the students who just cannot seem to properly research anything.
Idiot student: “What?! I couldn’t find the answer to that anywhere!”
Me: “Really? Cause it took me all of 2 minutes…..”

There’s the students who can’t write properly to save their lives, which is particularly a problem for academic librarians who must be published in order to stick around.

I could go on and on with my list, but I’ll get to my point. What I consider to be absolutely the worst idiocy is the students who just don’t get the ethics behind or the point in being a librarian.

Last night we were discussing working the reference desk and having a patron come up and ask for assistance in researching a medical issue such as diabetes or weight loss. (A pet peeve I have with this class is the idiot professor’s assumption that we are all going to be working in public libraries. *sigh*) A student piped up that she would first advise the patron to go to a doctor. I assumed the professor would inform her that it’s none of her damn business to go around telling people to go to a doctor. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t. I put in my two cent’s worth, which led to an epic debate.

Why do I have a problem with this?

Libraries are an essential element in democracies. If we as a populace are expected to actively participate in our governance and to keep an eye on our government, we must be informed. A library is a place where people can self-educate. They can fact-check. It’s largely about not believing everything you are told and investigating it yourself.

So a patron shows up to do just that and your immediate response is to tell them to go to some “authority” the culture has deemed appropriate and to just automatically trust them? See the problem here?

People are not complete idiots. They are aware doctors/lawyers/other authorities exist. If they are coming to the library to conduct their own research, there has got to be a reason.

Your job as a librarian is not to assume your patrons are idiots.
Your job as a librarian is not to reinforce the system.
Your job as a librarian is not to believe you can read people’s minds.

Your job as a librarian is to assist people in educating themselves.
Your job as a librarian is to help maintain (or, hell, produce) a questioning, educated public.

Librarianship is about being radical; it is not about reinforcing the norm.

The fact that my classmates simply do not get this core essence of librarianship makes me envision a Fahrenheit 451 type future where instead of firemen burning houses down, librarians only provide government-approved information and report questioners to The Man.