In today's charged political climate, it is inevitable that much of the culture's artistic output will strive for relevance to, well, "today's political climate." Art often serves as a mirror to its society, but will we reach a point in the Trump era at which we're suffering from oversaturation and dystopia fatigue? Perhaps, but George Orwell's classic "1984," first published as a novel in 1949 and currently presented by Los Altos Stage Company, remains timely -- and terrifying.
"1984" is one of the best-known novels of all time. It coined phrases that have become part of the pop-culture lexicon -- Newspeak, thoughtcrime, Big Brother, "War is Peace," The Two Minutes Hate and so on -- and introduced readers to a world in the not-too-distant future in which a totalitarian regime spies on its citizens via "telescreens" and constantly rewrites history by "correcting" the record in newspapers and videos so that no traces of the former truth remains. After all, "Who controls the present controls the past. Who controls the past controls the future." So, yeah, in a time of "alternative facts" and mass surveillance, there is clearly relevance here.
Taking on an iconic classic runs the risk of a production falling short of audience expectations. Los Altos Stage Company, however, is up to the task, presenting a 2011 stage adaptation by the Bay Area's own Michael Gene Sullivan. In this harrowing version, Winston Smith (Ben Ortega) is detained by "The Party" for treasonous thoughts and behavior. He is subjected to physical and mental torture as he is forced to give testimony, and has incriminating scenes from his diary acted out in front of him by four fellow Party Members (Anthony Stephens, Brittney Mignano, Keith Larson and Filip Hofman.) This is an interesting way of doing flashbacks and adds an extra dimension to the story, as we see some of the Party Members, in the midst of their cruelty and devotion to duty, start to slightly question their own actions and roles.
As in the book, we learn about neighbors spying on neighbors, children turning in their parents for alleged thoughtcrimes, hyper-nationalistic Oceania's permanent war with East Asia (or was it Eurasia?) and The Party's effort at cutting down on vocabulary (and therefore complex thought) with Newspeak dictionaries that feature fewer and fewer words with each new edition. The Party's goal is to not only prevent Winston from plotting resistance but to break his spirit and brainwash him completely so that he's a full-fledged believer in Big Brother once more.
Ortega's Winston is a captivating blend of vulnerability and defiance, a great choice for this everyman protagonist, and while at first it's confusing to imagine Stephens as Winston in the flashback sequences, it soon feels right. Mignano shifts from hard-hearted Party Member to -- in the simulated flashbacks --Winston's rebellious paramour Julia with great skill. And, though he isn't physically seen until the end, Geoff Fiorito absolutely commands the stage as O'Brien in a truly chilling performance. The anglophile in me was hoping this production, like the book, would be British-accented (especially given director Jenny Hollingworth's UK roots), but the cast won me over.
Ting Na Wang's scenic design (set at a disorientating 45-degree angle) is appropriately stark and cold, with Gary Landis' sound design adding to the bleak and frightening atmosphere (especially memorably in the shudder-producing scene involving rats -- and that's coming from someone who generally actually likes rats.)
Watching Los Altos Stage Company's "1984" is not a pleasant experience. Despite a few moments of levity, it's on the whole dark, intense and disturbing. And though there have been nearly as many years between now and 1984 as there were between Orwell's writing of the novel and the year in which it's set, you'll still leave the theater a little on edge, worrying about how much "1984" still resonates in 2018 -- or glad it's not quite that bad ... yet.
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.
When: Wednesdays-Sundays, through Feb. 18.
Cost: $20/student, $38/general.
Info: Go to LASC.