The year 1984 has come and gone, yet George Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian war state still feels prophetic. Exploring themes of privacy, censorship, nationalism and violence, Orwell’s renowned 1949 novel, “1984,” brings its readers to the horrifying Oceania, a “superstate” that is run by the ever-present Big Brother.
“1984” depicts a world that we’re continually inching closer to each day. AshtonRep Theatre Company’s intimate Raven’s Theatre (6157 N. Clark St.) production of the Broadway stage adaptation will leave audiences mulling over questions that Big Brother would never allow.
The play follows the story of Winston Smith (Ray Kasper), a middle-class citizen in Oceania who works as an editor in the “ministry of truth,” Big Brother’s censorship department. There, he helps Big Brother translate various works of literature into “newspeak,” Oceania’s budding new language that limits one’s ability to articulately express one’s personal identity and challenge the status quo. When Winston meets Julia (Sarah Lo), a new editor at the “ministry of truth,” the two fall in love. The new lovers begin to break away from Big Brother’s grasp and join a resistance movement against the oppressive regime.
The Raven Theatre is a local, intimate theater that puts audiences merely feet away from the stage. As audiences enter the space, they pass through a small hallway plastered with Big Brother propaganda — posters with Oceania’s motto written across them: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”
The same mantra is then seen on every wall of the small theater. At the back of the stage there are two TV screens with red eyes pointed at the audience, and the floor is covered in newspapers with handwriting across them. Director Robert Tobin (“The Women of Lockerbie,” “The Water’s Edge”) makes no effort to distance Orwell’s dystopian future from today’s, putting current phrases such as “fake news” and “alternative facts” across the pile of newspapers. The connections to the state of modern society are clear. Still, Tobin doesn’t beat audiences over the head with the parallels — he lets Orwell’s story do the work for him.
Tobin’s staging is well designed considering the space available to him. Symmetry is used to enhance Oceania’s rigid structure. The corners of the stage are used to show characters in isolation and more violent moments are specifically hid from audience members, encouraging their minds to fill in the gaps. The gruesome torture scenes that dominated the headlines of the Broadway production are significantly toned down in Tobin’s adaptation. The implication of horror is there, but the ideas and execution are softened.
There are just nine actors in the play, all of whom deliver resonant performances. The two leads, Ray Kasper and Sarah Lo, effectively make their romance believable despite some rushed pacing early on in their relationship. Other standouts include Alexandra Bennett as Parsons and Lorraine Freund as Winston and Julia’s landlady. Much of the narrative is placed on Kasper’s shoulders, and he carries it. More suspension of disbelief is required of the audience with this type of smaller production, and Kasper conveys the weight and oppression of the totalitarian state through his powerful and invested performance.
“1984” is a welcomed warning for modern times — its bleak, dire narrative can’t be heard too often. The story of Winston Smith is at once uplifting, heartbreaking and horrifying. George Orwell’s novel stands as one of the great prophetic visions of our flawed society, and it begs to be seen live.
“1984” will run through Oct. 8. Curtain times are at 8 p.m. every Monday through Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Prices for admission are $20 for general and $15 for students and seniors. Visit www.astonrep.com or call (773) 828-9129 to secure tickets.