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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: Original vs. Remake Comparison: The Last House on the Left (1972 vs. 2009)

November 25, 2010 4 comments

Woman with bloody hand clamped over her mouth.Summary:
1972:
Mary is a sweet-tempered, girl-next-door that every boy in the neighborhood has the hots for, but she has a best friend from the wrong side of the tracks.  They frolic in the woods together and drink alcohol kept cool in the river.  Mary’s parents do not approve.  Mary and her friend go to NYC for a concert, but when her friend tries to score some weed, their night goes horribly awry.  Suddenly they find themselves at the mercy of two escape convicts, a son of one of the convicts who does their beck and call for his heroin hits, and a malicious, nympho woman.

2009:
Mary is vacationing in the lakes with her doctor father and lovely mother.  She goes into town to hang out with her old friend, and the two of them go back to a hotel room to get high with a teenage boy.  But that boy’s father, uncle, and the uncle’s girlfriend come back, and the dad is an escaped con.  He decides he can’t let the girls go and kidnaps them, finishing them off in the woods.  They wind up car-wrecked and must seek help at a nearby cabin that just so happens to be Mary’s parents’.  When they figure out the mystery, all hell breaks loose.

Review:
1972:
This is a classically 70s film featuring everything from feathered hair to 70s music to background music oddly upbeat for the dark tone.  The opening shot is essentially of Mary’s Woman standing in front of a lake.boobs.  This was the era of really stretching the boundaries.  Everything semi-pornographic and disgusting that they could get away with, they did get away with.  There is one, rather controversial, scene in which Mary and her friend are forced to have sex with each other–and need I remind you her friend is female?  There is a lot of rape, a lot of blood, and these killers really do kill just for fun.  Not to make it sound like this is slasher porn, though.  There’s nothing at all remotely sexy about the violence.  It’s meant to be disturbing, and it is.  There’s one scene in particular that will have all male viewers crossing their legs and quivering in their boots.  All that said, this movie definitely reads as campy due to some unfortunate scenes featuring upbeat music and bumbling policemen that feel like they belong more in an episode of Andy Griffith than a horror movie.  I’m really  not sure what Craven was thinking sticking those scenes in there.  There of course also is the enduring problem of the victims being truly, incredibly stupid.  Horror is the most horrifying when it feels as if the victims did everything smart, but still got caught.  The element of unsuspected revenge is what saves the movie, though.

2009:
This movie is quite creative for a modern horror.  It takes a fairly sympathetic main character and has her a make a rather impulsive, but not completely stupid decision.  Mary and her friend take far more agency trying to get away.  They are far more modern female victims.  They fight back physically and not with words and pleading.  The cinematography is dark and intense.  The convict’s son becomes a far more sympathetic character, and Mary’s parents much more believable as a vindictive pair.  The whole plot moves at the perfect pace, and the ending is surprising.

1972 vs. 2009:
I have to say, 2009 wins for horror movie quality.  It is put together more smoothly without the odd side-story of the police with the humorous background music.  The story is more cohesive.  However, surprisingly, 1972 is far more gory and feels more like a slasher.  The violence, both sexual and physical, is surprising, and the villains are far more evil.  If you’re out for the chills of a good horror, movie, go with the 2009 version.  If you’re after sheer blood and violence, go for the 1972 version.

1972: 3.5 out of 5 stars

2009: 4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

1972: Buy It

2009: Buy It

Book Review: Battle Royale Ultimate Edition Volume 1 by Koushun Takami (Manga) (Series, #1)

January 22, 2010 4 comments

A Note on Me and Graphic Novels:
This, believe it or not, was my first foray into the world of graphic novels.  I was spurred into this new territory by my intense love of the movie Battle Royale.  I know that there’s also a traditional book out there, but I’d heard the manga is what the author feels really fulfills his vision of the story.  I received the first volume of the ultimate edition, which contains the first three mangas in the series, for Chrismukkah.  I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy reading a graphic novel.  I tend to associate them with superheroes, and I’m not generally a fan of superhero stories (except Ironman. Robert Downey Jr., *swoon*).  But this.  This was a story I already knew I liked, so I came at the genre with a much more open mind than the once or twice I flipped through a superhero graphic novel.  You guys, I absolutely love the feeling of reading a graphic novel.  I could literally feel different parts of my brain working at it than that work when reading a regular book, playing videogames, writing, or watching a movie.  It’s like a portion of my brain was like “Oh hai.  You finally remembered I exist!”  I love that I’m only reading dialogue, because I hate extensive descriptions in books.  I love that the drawings are art that I actually enjoy looking at the fine details of.  I love it that when I flip back to show scenes to other people, I notice things in the drawings I didn’t see the first time around.  I’m officially a convert to the genre, but you still won’t see me reading about superheroes anytime soon.

Summary:
In an alternate history of Japan, Japan comes under the rule of a totalitarian, isolationist government after WWII.  The government rules through terror, and part of that terror is selecting, supposedly via lottery, one 9th grade class every year to compete in a televised game where it is kill or be killed.  Shuuya never expected to win this lottery, but when his class goes on a field trip, upon arrival they discover that they are this year’s participants on an island location.  They discover collars on their necks that will detonate if more than one is left alive at a certain point and also if they wander into the randomly assigned and changing forbidden zones.  As the teens attempt to survive the game through various methods, flashbacks tell the story of the 9th grade class members.

Review:
I absolutely love this story.  I love violent, gory stories, and there are creative deaths galore here.  For instance, the weapons include a scythe, and that scythe gets used.  In one particularly memorable scene, a girl desperately attempts to stuff a boy’s brains back into his skull.  It’s freaking amazing.  There’s also graphic sex, ranging from rape to love.  I don’t like my books to pretend like sex doesn’t happen in the real world, because um, it does.  The fact that sex can be wonderful and about emotions or horrible and about power is wonderfully depicted.

The manner of introducing these characters tossed together in a horrible situation then expanding on who they are via flashbacks is very reminiscent of Lost.  Of course, here the characters knew each other, at least somewhat, before the game.  The flashbacks fit in perfectly with the action of the game, and they reveal just enough about the characters without revealing too much.  From a cooking class that solidified a friendship to crimes committed to lessons learned from an activist uncle, the flashbacks are endlessly fascinating.

Seeing these characters in what most certainly feels like a hopeless situation orchestrated by a powerful government far bigger than they are is truly powerful reading.  It leaves the reader wondering not only what makes people do bad things, but also how to define what is good and bad given various situations.  Is it actually good to team up and attempt to buck the system or will that just cause more pain in the end?  Is suicide a bad thing when it’s kill yourself or kill others?

If you enjoy Lost, The Hunger Games, violence, psychology, or even just graphic novels, you will enjoy this book.  I highly recommend it and can’t wait to read the next volume!

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

Buy It

Movie Review: Choke (2008)

November 2, 2009 3 comments

I promised you guys more than just book reviews, but what can I say, I read more books than I finish movies and definitely videogames.  I play them a lot, but it takes me forever to finish.  Anyway, I’m finally keeping that by-line promise.  Here be my first movie review! (They will be much shorter than the book reviews).

MV5BMTQ3MDAxNTYxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDM2MTcyMg@@._V1._SX98_SY140_Summary:
Vincent had to drop out of medical school to get a full-time job as a colonial reenactor in order to pay the bills to keep his Alzheimer’s mother in a good home for people with mental illness.  To help boost the bank account, he sometimes pretends to choke in fancy restaurants, then sues his rescuers.  Of course, that’s what he goes to meetings for.  He goes to meetings because he’s a sex addict.  When he meets his mother’s new doctor, he starts to question who he really is when he discovers that he might sort of actually like her.

Review:
I admit it.  I have a weakness for movies about legitimately crazy people finding their way through life. Particularly when finding their way involves falling in love.  Although the title implies that Vincent’s scam is the focus of the movie, in fact it is about how his random childhood with his mother and foster families made him who he is today.

For a movie based on a Chuck Palahniuk book, this isn’t very graphic.  Clearly since Vincent’s a sex addict, there are some moderately graphic sex scenes, but there is little violence and the sex is pretty normal.  I’ve seen more disturbing scenes on Entourage.

The acting is good.  It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it’s not bad either.  Setting of the scenes is done quite well.  It feels like the everyday world cranked up a notch.

What makes Choke interesting isn’t the violence shock factor that Fight Club had going for it.  Choke modestly proposes that it’s ok to be a bit crazy–in moderation.  It also dares to suggest that we can be who we decide to be instead of what society says we are as long as we’re aware enough to make that conscious decision.

If you want gratuitous sex from the author who brought us the violence of Fight Club, don’t bother with Choke.  However, if you enjoy movies about the mind and what makes us who we are, give Choke a shot.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

Buy It

Book Review: Fourth Realm Trilogy By John Twelve Hawks

October 9, 2009 5 comments

coverethetraveler_small coverthedarkriver_small coverthegoldencity_small

Summary:
John Twelve Hawks presents us with a near-future dystopia in the Fourth Realm TrilogyThe Traveler, The Dark River, and The Golden City.  In this vision of the world Earth as we know it is actually just one of six realms of parallel universes.  Travelers are the only ones who can move between these parallel universes.  Saints with visions of heaven and hell and motivating, compassionate people such as Buddha are examples of past travelers.  They seek to keep people aware of their “Light” aka soul.  An evil organization called The Brotherhood has been seeking for generations to wipe out travelers, as they believe they cause dissent.  Working against The Brotherhood are Harlequins–people raised from birth to defend travelers at all costs.  The Brotherhood thought they had succeeded and have started building a panopticon–a virtual prison in which everyone is constantly under surveillance for “their own protection.”  However, two brothers–Michael and Gabriel–are actually travelers.  Michael sides with The Brotherhood in an effort to ensnare humanity, while Gabriel teams up with Maya, a Harlequin.   The two brothers thus are pit against each other in an effort to enslave or save humanity.

Review:
The Fourth Realm Trilogy is decidedly a series with a message and an agenda.  “John Twelve Hawks” is actually a pen-name, and the publisher claims that he does try to live off the grid out of a concern about loss of freedom via invasion of privacy with new technology.  There is skepticism as to whether this is true or a marketing hype.  Regardless, whoever the author is, his main concern is definitely loss of privacy to technology, and this is abundantly evident in the trilogy.

This is a plot-driven trilogy.  It reads like an action film in the feel of The Matrix.  Further it is exciting because the world the characters live in looks exactly like our own, right down to the surveillance cameras in London.  The only difference is these parallel universes, which is a feature I enjoyed a lot.  Dystopian novels are usually either completely bound in our world or take place in an entirely different one.  This trilogy utilizes both approaches, and this kept it from feeling like an updated version of 1984.

There are many characters.  Thankfully, they are distinct enough that keeping track of them is relatively easy, but sometimes Twelve Hawks does not pay enough attention to character development.  Particularly toward the end of the trilogy, characters will suddenly make a decision or behave in a manner that comes out of nowhere and is completely out of character.  These moments are jarring and distract from the plot.

The plot itself is a good, complex one.  It takes place all over this world and journeys to every single realm.  Two plot sequences I particularly enjoyed were one in an off-the-grid commune in the south-west US and another in Japan.  Twelve Hawks must have travelled extensively, because the descriptions scream “I’ve been there. I know what it’s really like.”  There was one plot hole in The Dark River that still bothers me.  I think what probably happened is there’s an explanation for the action, but Twelve Hawks neglected to write it in.  However, the ending makes up for the plot hole as I was unable to predict it.  I absolutely love unpredictable endings that keep me page-turning right up until the end.

Another enjoyable element of the trilogy is the violence.  It is chock-full of creative deaths, and even characters who don’t die get beat up a lot–in all realms.  An example of the level of violence is a scene where three characters’ limbs are simultaneously wripped off in front of an audience.  However, most of the violence is more of the ninja type, due to the presence of the sword and martial-arts trained Harlequins.  Twelve Hawks’s strength is writing action sequences, so these are great fun to read.

A mark against the trilogy is periodic character speeches that are obviously Twelve Hawks voicing his opinion.  This a typical short-coming of dystopian novels though.  Authors with a dark vision of the future can’t seem to help proselytizing in an attempt to save it.  I don’t hold this against the novels, but other readers might find it more annoying.  There’s essentially one speech a book.

If you enjoy Quentin Tarantino movies or want a more grown-up, spiritual version of The Hunger Games, definitely give the Fourth Realm Trilogy a chance.  I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Bought The Traveller, borrowed The Dark River and The Golden City from the library

Buy The Traveller
Buy The Dark River
Buy The Golden City