Chicago Theatre Review
Big Brother’s Watching You
1984 – Steppenwolf Theatre
Following a recent performance, a young girl was observed quietly leaving the theatre. She was acting rather strange and so her grandmother asked what was the matter. The middle school youngster said that the play she’d just seen had scared her, which is a testament to the power of live theatre. It’s usually immediate, sometimes hits home and can often deliver a power punch that audiences won’t soon forget. This teenaged girl may experience a few nightmares after seeing this play, but then George Orwell’s cautionary novel was meant to do just that.
Once again Steppenwolf’s theatre for young audiences has accomplished their mission. As with their previous productions of other literary adaptations, such as “Animal Farm” and “The Book Thief,” Steppenwolf has captured the essence of this novel and aimed it directly at the emotion and intellect of their patrons. They’ve produced another drama, particularly geared toward young audiences, that’ll stay with patrons for a long time.
George Orwell’s 1949 novel is set in a dystopian futuristic world, where war is never-ending and government surveillance and the persecution of individual freedom are the order of the day. The Thought Police are constantly on patrol, dragging citizens who dare to be creative or revolutionary off to prison, where they’re tortured, brainwashed and often put to death. Thoughtcrime is considered a form of treason and will not be tolerated in this totalitarian society. Even the way people express themselves has been simplified; unnecessary words are discarded and the condensed language that emerges is called Newspeak. Everyone and everything is continually monitored by the tyrannical leader of the political party, called Big Brother. The government isn’t interested in the good of its people, but rather in power for power’s sake.
Within this oppressive world we meet Winston Smith, a talented worker at the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite or falsify all historical documents so that they appear to support the current government. Skilled at his job, Winston secretly hates Big Brother and dreams of rebellion against this regime. He falls in love (a forbidden expression) with Julia, who joins Winston in defying the system. O’Brien, who poses as a member of the Brotherhood of rebels, gains Winston and Julia’s trust. However, he soon reveals his true colors as he traps and captures the couple, turning each against the another. In the end, Winston’s will is been sublimated and he ultimately declares his love and devotion for Big Brother.
This frightening, fictional world, prophetically laced with so many elements from our 21st century society, is a nightmare in every sense of the word. Orwell was warning readers of how an insidious, overbearing government, if left unchecked, could be capable of taking away every element of our humanity and freedom. Conformity and the banishment of free will would replace enlightenment, creativity and the individual. This production unfolds as a horror story, made even scarier because it’s too close for comfort as it unfolds before our very eyes. In print, a reader can always close the book and take a break from the revulsion; in the theatre, there’s no looking away.
Andrew White’s concise adaptation of Orwell’s best-known novel is directed by Hallie Gordon with stark immediacy and unflinching bleakness. Collette Pollard’s streamlined scenic design, visually enhanced by Joseph A Burke’s dynamic projections, is composed of various sized drawers and file cabinets, harboring all manner of information and hidden past memories, and jutting out from a vast upstage wall. Andrew Rovner’s sound design and original music, combined with Amanda Clegg Lyon’s uncompromising lighting is both stark and unforgiving.
Ms. Gordon’s cast is strong and competent. Adam Poss is excellent as Winston Smith, embodying all the longing and desperation of a man floundering amid the inescapable entrapment of a power-hungry government. Mr. Poss refuses to become simply another mindless automaton created by Big Brother, and the audience empathizes with his plight. Lance Baker is steely cold and terrifying as O’Brien, and Atra Asdou is seductive yet rebellious as Julia. The ensemble, often playing multiple roles, brings to life a society of many people who have collectively become one.
This drama is a cautionary tale of science fiction that, even more than in films like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” makes the horror of a dystopian society feel believably real and immediate. Big Brother is always watching, not only each of the characters, but the audience, as well. The inescapable terror of living under such a restrictive regime is grimly brought to life, and theatergoers will long be haunted by these characters and their moving story of defiance, long after the houselights return.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 21- November 21 by Steppenwolf Theatre in the Upstairs space, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.