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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.

 

Friday Fun! (Wild Swans at the ART)

February 17, 2012 3 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

So, you may recall that one of my 5 star reads of 2011 was Wild Swans by Jung Chang (review).  Imagine my shock when I saw a poster for a play at the American Repertory Theater by the same name!  I immediately googled and found out that the very same book had indeed been made into a play with the cooperation and assistance of Jung Chang.  Holy shizzit!!  I bought a ticket then and there.

The show was last night, and I was skeptical.  How could a 90 minute play possibly encompass such a large book?  We’re talking the lives of three women and covering decades of China’s history!  But I was encouraged by the involvement of Jung Chang herself so went in with positive thoughts.

You guys.  I was blown away.

We entered the theater to see a Chinese market scene, complete with the actors talking in Mandarin (I think) while we were finding our places and waiting for the show to actually start.

Shortly the show started with De-hong (Chang’s mother) talking with her mother about her engagement to a Nationalist.  I was surprised that they were starting with De-hong.  What about grandma?  Clearly, I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to play adaptations, because how they told grandma’s story wound up being my favorite scene in the play.  De-hong’s refusal to marry the Nationalist quickly won the audience over, most of whom had not read the book.  It quickly established De-hong’s strong personality.

The next scene featured De-hong in full communist party uniform coming to a field of workers to explain communism.  In order to win the workers over to the cause, they explained their own family history of suffering at the hands of the elite.  It is here we got grandma’s story.  One of the comrades pulled out a traditional Chinese stringed instrument and a gong.  The others pulled out these GORGEOUS puppets!  I mean their faces were beautifully painted and so expressive.  The evil elites’ faces were grotesquely disproportionate and painted, whereas De-hong’s mother was simple and beautiful.  In a few short minutes, using the puppets to demonstrate, De-hong told the workers the story of her mother’s life suffering as a concubine and how she stole her away from the house.  I was shocked at how perfectly it worked and completely loved how smoothly it fit into the play.

The show then progressed to De-hong and Shou-yu’s courtship while working as comrades in the fields.  So far everything had pretty much taken place against the same scenery.  I was wondering how they were going to transition what I knew was coming–hospitals, apartments, schools, etc…  I was impressed when they rolled back the matting on the back wall while the action was happening.  Gradually transitioning from field to hospital.  This background scenery of people was used for most of the rest of the play with set pieces being moved around in front of it to depict the main settings of apartments, classrooms, hospitals, and meeting rooms.

The other thing that really impressed me in the play was how they managed to show the problems Comrade Ting caused without totally demonizing her.  They made it clear that Comrade Ting used to be with Shou-yu, and Shou-yu kind of rubbed his courtship of De-hong in her face.  Not that this excused Comrade Ting for going after De-hong, but it prevented her character from being too easily demonized by the audience.

I was also impressed with how, although the play makes it clear that Shou-yu’s commitment to Communism above all else hurt his family badly, it is also evident that his family still loved him and he them.  Another powerful scene depicts the young reds coming after Shou-yu and forcing Er-hong (Jung Chang) to choose whether to “draw a line” between herself and him or not.  Drawing a line is essentially disowning a family member.  Er-hong tearfully refuses and chooses to stand beside her father.  It was a great scene that eloquently depicted so much of the feeling of the book.

The play then subtly shows the passage of time to more modern ones by using a video of people working in a rice field as the backdrop for a scene where Shou-yu is working in a prison camp and Er-hong visits him.  This is when we start truly seeing Er-hong’s story.

The final couple of scenes were set against a background of cubes with more video on them.  This showed both the crowded hustle and bustle of the city and also the relative modernity of Er-hong’s young adulthood.  In just a few short scenes, the play managed to demonstrate the family being reunited, as well as Shou-yu’s persistent refusal, in spite of everything, to help his daughter by pulling strings.  He to the very end was committed to pure equality, even though Er-hong points out to him that nothing they do will change the system.  The father and daughter’s very different opinions are eloquently presented in a few short lines.  Er-hong then leaves her father and steps to the very front of the stage on a mat to demonstrate her eventual emigration from China.

Overall, the play ultimately focuses in on De-hong’s life, but it works.  We see how her viewpoint of her mother’s life influenced her choice to back up Communism.  We then also see how De-hong’s choices influenced Er-hong to ultimately leave China.  It’s an eloquent play that really does the book justice.  I encourage any of my local readers to go see it, as it is still playing.

Happy weekends!

PS I had pictures, but the production scolded me so I had to take them down.  Alas!

Review of the Boston Ballet’s Performance of Bella Figura (2011)

While on my staycation, I decided to take in some of the cultural sights/events around my fair city that it’s normally difficult to find the time to do.  One of these was the Boston Ballet.  I just went with whatever show happened to be playing the weekend of my vacation, and this happened to be Bella Figura–a modern ballet.

Since we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the Boston Opera House at all, we’re just going to hope that my words will suffice in explaining the complete unexpectedness of the ballet.

My friend and I were uncertain as to what, exactly, the ballet was supposed to be about, so naturally we consulted our programs.  The most clear line in the entire description was, “Standing in the darkness and staring into a sharp light with eyes closed.”  There is so much wrong with that sentence.  If you are standing in the darkness, there is no sharp light.  If your eyes are closed, you aren’t staring into anything…..

In any case, the first act opened on a blue background with stools in the back.  The word “the” on a plaque was on the floor at the front of the stage.  This, combined with the dancers’ blue and white traditional attire, conspired to give the appearance of a typical dance studio.  The music was electrical and came from the speakers, not the orchestra pit.  The dancing was firm, vibrant, and called to mind the gang dance scenes from West Side Story.  Simultaneously crazy and choreographed, it elicited pure joy in myself at the playfulness of the whole thing.  I honestly wasn’t entirely sure what the message was, but to me, it was that craziness can be fun.  It ended with one of the male dancers firmly kicking over the plaque.  To me, this symbolized defeating the norm.

The second act consisted of three scenes of pairs of dancers obviously supposed to be emulating romantic relationships.  This was the only act that the orchestra made an appearance for.  All three dances were clearly about romantic relationships, yet each relationship was unique and exquisite.  Of particular note was the second romantic pairing which had a gorgeous moon background, dry ice fog, and the most sensual ballet dancing I personally have ever seen.  It brought tears to my eyes and my friend and I commented to each other that the dances beautifully represented the push and pull, good and bad of all romantic relationships.  It was touching in the pure universality of such relationships.

The third act, however, was quite simply, baffling.  It opened with a set of flashing blue tubes rising from the floor, giving the illusion that the dancers had set up a bomb or something.  The dancers then started dancing in time with the music, which was again pre-recorded, but not with each other.  The lead female dancer then came out in a tribal red skirt and topless.  The men were dancing in, essentially, boxer-briefs, which in and of itself was enjoyable, but evidently the outfit choice was to allow for the men to punctuate their dance moves by slapping themselves on the thigh.  The female lead then danced in front of a curtain with someone else behind the curtain who periodically groped her through the curtain, alternately hiding her breasts and showing them to the audience.  The toplessness came and went throughout the act with approximately six dancers (three male and three female) periodically appearing topless.  The other portions were taken up by dancers who, while clothed, essentially seemed to be doing a more graceful version of the robot.  Frequently during this portion there were three dancers on stage.  The only message I got from this act was that “threesomes can be really fun.”

Overall, I entirely enjoyed my visit to the ballet.  It was not at all the stuffy visit I was expecting.  Our usher was truly an awesome lady who just wanted us to enjoy our afternoons.  Our section was full of other 20-somethings who were capable of both strong emotions and simultaneously didn’t take anything too seriously.  Seeing such disciplined bodies in action was inspiring, and the first act spoke to my preference for alternative music and dance styles.  However, it must be said, what touched me the most at my core was the most traditional portion of the show–the second act.  Seeing relationships played out exquisitely in dance hearkens back to the origins of dance.  It is the second act that would make me go to the Boston Ballet again.