Review: Watch Out for ‘1984’ at The Barnstormers Theatre

By Lisa Panzer

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

~ George Orwell, “1984”

The omnipresent eye of Big Brother is watching you… The all seeing telescreen in George Orwell’s prescient novel ‘1984’, published in 1949, featuring omnipotent persona Big Brother, is a totalitarian tool used to broadcast propaganda, issue and stoke hate and spy on citizens. In this stygian science fiction classic, it is not enough to obey; one must absolutely believe. Any thinking outside the purview of the government, any glimpse of solipsism is highly policed by the surveillance regime, by co-workers, comrades, even one’s own children. Every one is watched, and everyone watches. Orwell’s Oceania is flooded with rats. Hate rallies occur daily, where all profess their faith in front of the all knowing telescreen.

Winston Smith (Danny Donnelly), who works in dreary cubicle at Records Department in the Ministry of Truth revising historical records, notices Citizen Julia (Aimee Theresa) exuberantly shouting “Down with…” and “Death to…” the latest enemy of the regime, louder than anyone else. His simultaneous repulsion and attraction to her propel to him into a dangerous liaison, not only with her, but also with awakening ideas of liberty and love. Caught up in a political nightmare, Winston is proclaimed bête noire to Big Brother and is consequently captured and punished by the party. He is catechized within the heart of the Ministry of Love, where his cached fears are culled and made manifest in order to ‘save’ him. In Room 101 O’Brien (B.K. Dawson) induces basic lessons in doctrine with electrifying force, until “6097 Smith” ultimately learns to embrace Big Brother. Michael Gene Sullivan’s fervid adaptation of ‘1984’, directed by Ruth K. Brown and presented at The Barnstormers Theater by special permission from Bill Hamilton of the Literary Executor of the Estate of the Late Sonia Brownwell Orwell, thoroughly evinces Orwell’s dark, dystopian vision, and is a rare theatrical occasion in this area. Catch it while you can.

Various hues of gray, black and murky blues inform the play’s atmosphere, with the shadow of Big Brother upon the back scrim of the multi-tiered stage surrounded by blood red. Ubiquitous slogans stating “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, “Ignorance is Strength” strategically placed around the set, having the telescreen preside at the top center forefront of the stage, in conjunction with offstage entrances and exits, work to create an aura of engulfment. Corrugated walls in blanched leaden tones, metallic chairs, austere, ashen colored costumes (Julie Lacontora and cast), combine with infusive lighting (L.J. Buzz DiSabatino), and sensational sound effects (L.J. Buzz DiSabatino, Danny Donnelly) to provide a poignant backdrop for moments of brilliant acting on the part of the cast.

Danny Donnelly gives a deep, searing performance as protagonist Winston Smith, via superb expression physicality, and all out acting ability. Echoing Winston as a reenactor for the prosecuting party, Eric Rupp also does exceedlingly well, especially with nuanced reactions for his character within character. Julia is enriched with exquisite edge and attitude by the talent of Aimee Theresa. In the world of 1984, pornography is permitted, but making love is eschewed. Perpetrating as many acts of illicit sex as possible is Julia’s way of saying “Screw you” to Big Brother’s control. She is crafty and smart, but the State sees all. B.K. Dawson embodies O’Brien, who methodically, with quiet confidence, finally breaks Winston Smith (while sipping champagne) beautifully by way of detailed mannerisms, posture and vocal distinction. Adding this gripping production are Frank Gerace as the Interrogator, Brian McKay as the Loudspeaker Voice, and Nicholas Marcovecchio and E. Scott Jones grace the stage portraying several strong supporting roles apiece.

In Orwell’s 1984, numbing “newspeak”, confusing “doublethink”, revisionist history and the oblivion creating “memory hole” are employed to reinforce false realities to maintain conformity and control by a privileged group of less than 2 percent of the population known as the “Inner Party”. Yes, the play’s subject matter and content are eminently disturbing, but well worth a look, especially as staged at Barnstormers.

Performances of ‘1984’ continue through Sept. 23 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm.

The Barnstormers Theater is located at 402 Tome St., Ridley Park, PA 19078

For tickets, visit www.barnstormerstheater.com or call 610- 461-9969.