The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has departed from its Elizabethan roots frequently throughout the years, although perhaps never so markedly as this season, when it started with a Sondheim musical and now goes out on what may be its farthest limb ever with the regional premiere of Robert Icke’s and Duncan MacMillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s vision of a dystopian future, 1984. If you think 1984 has been rehashed in just about every way imaginable already, think again, as this adaptation has plenty of fresh ideas and twists which would be a thought-crime to spoil in this review.
Suffice it to say that the singular quality of this production of 1984is its attempt to make the audience as viscerally uncomfortable as its protagonists. The play runs just short of 100 minutes with no intermission; the audience is warned that no one who leaves the theatre will be readmitted. Spectators are gamely offered earplugs before the show begins for anyone who is sensitive to loud noises. A large staticky video screen dominates the set which at the beginning is trained on the audience itself—but the entire set becomes a projection full of a myriad of shifting images designed to keep us off-balance. The fourth wall between the actors and the audience is shattered more than once. Jay Woffington, CSC’s executive director, perhaps said it best when I greeted him after the show: “Did you survive?”
The plot of1984 needs little exposition for anyone in the world who has a pulse. Winston Smith is an everyman in living in an indeterminate future, working at the “Ministry of Truth” as a technician who erases records of any individuals whose memory the State, run by “Big Brother”, wants to eradicate; secretly he wants to help overthrow the oppressive government by joining a shadowy brotherhood run by the elusive Emmanuel Goldstein. He is cast appropriately as CSC’s ever-reliable everyman, Justin McCombs, who demonstrates he can step out of his usual penchant for lighter roles with intensity and authenticity. Sara Clark, also a consistent CSC favorite, is seductive and powerful as Julia, Winston’s romantic interest and fellow conspirator. Jeremy Dubin is mesmerizing and chilling as the elusive O’Brien. Various other roles are performed rivetingly by other members of the CSC ensemble, both familiar and unfamiliar. All of them are tightly directed by Brian Isaac Phillips, who despite the occasionally repetitive or wordy script manages to keep the action unflagging and the audience’s attention pinned.
CSC’s technical prowess is tested in this production and the capabilities of their new venue shine here. The set, designed by Justen N. Locke, while seemingly utilitarian, is quite expansive and undergoes a surprising transformation towards the end. Sound and lighting effects (by Andrew Hungerford and Douglas Borntrager, respectively) abound, ranging from the subtle to the histrionic. And, as noted above, the show relies heavily on video and projections designed by Dan Reynolds and Steve McGowan of the Brave Berlin company. All of these effects were timed perfectly and always delivered.
It might be easy to suggest that 1984 has a peculiar relevance to audiences today because of our political climate—no matter which side of the political aisle you sit. But that would be disingenuous and do a disservice to the timelessness of Orwell’s masterpiece. The play explicitly rejects this notion in a brilliant framing device, which I won’t spoil for you either, but which makes it clear that the problems and ideas behind 1984 are ones which every people, of every age, must grapple with in their own way. And there are no easy answers. As we listen to Jeremy Dubin, as O’Brien, enjoining Winston Smith, we realize the choices we have to make are not morally unambiguous ones.
1984 may not be the most obvious theatrical choice for the Halloween season, but trust me, this production is every bit as terrifying and unnerving as the worst haunted house or horror movie you will see. Be advised, there are explicit scenes of graphic violence, torture, and sex in this production and it is not appropriate for younger viewers. 1984 runs through November 3rd at the Otto M. Budig theatre and tickets can be purchased on the CSC website, https://cincyshakes.com or by calling the box office.