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Cincinnati Shakespeare’s “1984” Will Leave You Wide-eyed!

Review by Willie Caldwell of 1984: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

The second production of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s 25thanniversary season is a shocker in more ways than one. Written by George Orwell and adapted to stage by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, 1984 tells the story of a dystopian future where, “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.”

Written in 1949, Orwell’s novel is widely revered as one of the greatest political fiction and science-fiction novels of all time. The novel’s themes of totalitarian and authoritarian state governments resonate strongly with today’s political landscape and never-ending news cycle. Big Brother, doublethink, and thought-crime all play out in real time as the ruling party seeks to wipe out individualism and independent thinking through perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and propaganda.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the video and projections crated by Dan Reynolds and Steve McGowan of Brave Berlin. As the founding directors of LumenoCity and Blink, Reynolds and McGowan skillfully create an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension and a heightened sense of paranoia. The use of technology and digital projection mapping helps to create a surreal world where nothing is quite what it seems and there is always the sense that someone is watching. This is made apparent as the audience is incorporated more than once through the use of live stream video. Audiences are accosted by sound and light for the duration of the performance which runs approximately 101 minutes without intermission.

While the use of technology is an overall triumph, there are places where the sound becomes deafening. The repeated use of a siren becomes somewhat uncomfortable as does several instances of an amplified voice which is simply too loud. Ushers offer ear plugs which I would recommend.

The cast is strong and works hard to blend the world of the play with the world of the audience. Actors routinely break the fourth wall and reference the similarities between Orwell’s 1984 and current day.

Justin McComb’s portrayal of Winston Smith begins quietly and remains understated for the first part of the play. As tensions rise and allegiances are tested, McComb works himself into a full fledge frenzy on stage. Sweat, spit, and blood become tools in his performance as he works to close the gap between the actors and the audience forcing us to question our own reality and leaving us to wonder, is this really a “play?’

Julia, played by Sara Clark, is methodical and almost robotic. Clark’s carefully crafted performance demonstrates skillful control and is matched by the sharp lines of her appearance. Clark is reminiscent of the femme fatale character and embodies the seductive siren who will ultimately bring disaster to any man who becomes involved with her. Clark and McComb balance each other quite nicely as tensions continue to rise and ultimately reveal a dramatic transformation of the set.

O’Brien, played by Jeremey Dubin, weaves between our protagonists in a parental way that is ominously reassuring. Dubin delightfully embodies an air of smugness that often accompanies unchecked authority.  His performance is meticulously matched by his sharp suit, tidy pocket square, and horn-rimmed glasses.

Overall, the production is unnerving, timely, and a bit too real. If you’re looking for a psychological thriller of Orwellian proportions, don’t miss Cincy Shake’s production of 1984. Especially as we gear up for the real horror of the fall season… midterm elections.

1984 runs from October 12 – November 3, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 513.381.2273.