‘1984’ knocking on your door

A must-see play at the Alley Theatre in Houston got its walking papers after a handful of performances. On Thursday, March 12 the Alley announced, like so many public places dealing with the threat of COVID-19/coronavirus, that it would close its doors until the end of the month.

by Tomas Bernal

The new production of “1984,” based on George Orwell’s celebrated novel had opened the previous weekend and was scheduled to run until March 31.

(As of now the Alley Theatre has canceled the rest of its 2020 season, which was scheduled to run until July 5.)

“1984” directed by Alley artistic director Rob Melrose features a perfect alignment of the non-profit’s resident troupe. Shawn Hamilton plays Winston and Chris Hutchison plays his interrogator O’Brien. Party members respectively portrayed by Todd Waite, David Rainey, Elizabeth Bunch and Jay Sullivan [CQ] alsoplay secondary characters that are brought up during the interrogation.

The constant probing about past activities allows the actors to slide back and forth between their official roles as torturers to helpless victims or friends of Winston. In the movies these moments would be called flashbacks. But this stage version thoughtfully adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan isn’t your parents “1984.”

There is no looming giant face of Big Brother being projected to the audience. The majority of the drama deals with Winston’s interrogation and his subsequent brainwashing. The spine of the play revolves around Winston being convinced that he is indeed guilty of thought crime, and being reduced to a compliant citizen of the dystopian society that believes 2 + 2 = 5.

George Orwell’s book, published in 1949 and never out of print, was made into a movie twice. Once in 1956 starring Edmond O’Brien, and also in 1984, starring John Hurt and featuring Richard Burton’s last movie appearance.

There have also been television versions, at least one opera and numerous songs devoted to the concept. The first was from rock group Spirit who released a single titled “1984” in February of 1970.

When I saw Spirit perform locally at the Texas Opera House (at a building now called Richmond Hall that houses the Dan Flavin Installation as part of the Menil Collection) in 1980 they changed the lyrics: “Oh just where will you be when your freedom is dead – Won’t you listen tonight?” to “Oh just where will you be when your freedom is dead – Four years from tonight.”

David Bowie released an entire album “Diamond Dogs” that was inspired by Orwell’s novel that included a titular song. In fact the recording was designed to be a stage production only Bowie couldn’t get performance rights from Orwell’s widow.

Just two days after the cancellation notice the Alley offered ticket holders a chance to stream the play directly to their homes. That version is being recorded and the online production will be provided by a secure link to ticket holders during the last week of March.

With phony wars and fake news dominating the background of “1984” this story has never been more apt. The Alley production certainly will rank among the best of current streaming offerings, which is now becoming the norm rather than an alternative to movies and live stage productions.

While this scribe can’t recommend “1984” enough let’s consider how watching a streaming play will never replace to experience of seeing theater in person.

Anybody who’s ever been to the Alley knows how they announce before the show begins for anyone who might unwrap hard candies to do so before the show starts. Actually the voice on the loudspeaker bemoaned the audience that “Big Brother doesn’t like the crinkly sound of cellophane.”

Obviously anyone watching the streaming version of “1984” can pause, eat aloud or make phone calls during the play.

Lost too will be the dynamic lighting effects that included occasionally bathing the audience in dark blue lights as well as strobe lights used judiciously during Winston’s brainwashing.

At another point in the play both Waite and Sullivan smoked a cigarette onstage with the smell wafting slowly over the audience.

Watching this production via a television or computer screen will still be full of sights and sounds. Only the viewer is on the honor system to actually take in the message in a single uninterrupted sitting.

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