Torture Garden

Chris Gallu's adaptation of 1984 is anything but an overly academic experience -- it's a fresh vision of an old hell

The first thing to note about The Catalyst Theater Company’s production of George Orwell’s 1984 is that it does not feel like high school. I say this because most of us remember this modern classic as something we were required to read and analyze during those tender years. And although we all got the gist of things Orwellian, the truth is we studied the book in a context and at an age guaranteeing our inability to fully recognize or relate to its meaning, message and cynicism. Such are the odd consequences of a good education.

The fact is 1984 is not a book for beginners. It is a piece far better understood and ”enjoyed” after one has buckled down to adulthood, perhaps especially a Washington, D.C., adulthood, with all its attendant spirit-busting strictures of the workplace, saturating political and marketing spin, and such phenomena as the ownership of one’s body, mind and future by a health-insurance company.

Please sir, may I have another? Fortier and LeValley
Please sir, may I have another? Fortier and LeValley

Thus, revisiting 1984 as an adult, either as book or dramatization, is a unique opportunity for a bit of re-education sans the Orwellian confines of the average American secondary school. Having said that, Chris Gallu’s adaptation as offered by The Catalyst Theater Company is anything but an overly academic experience. This is a fast-paced, extremely accessible interpretation that throws Orwell’s story and ideas straight up and out (thus making it, ironically, ideal for a precocious high schooler). It has the advantage of a clear view into Orwells’ world. It has the disadvantage of losing the messy, angry, devolving inner view of protagonist Winston as he navigates his oppressive existence. We see his plight and sense it, but do not hear the complex voice of the book.

Still, director Jim Petosa beautifully complements Gallu’s version with a tightly honed production mixing snazzy blocks of liberatingly funky, metallic music and movement in and around a brightly articulated storyline. Scott Fortier, Catalyst’s founding artistic director, plays Winston, a man who easily falls afoul of the system. Fortier throws himself utterly into his role, projecting well a stunned psyche gradually awakening to both inner and outer voices of dissent. Only occasionally in his eventual battle of wills with his persecutor, O’Brien, does Fortier gild the lily with a little too much I’ve-been-tortured head-bobbling.

For his part, Ian LeValley plays O’Brien with a memorable mix of warmth, insanity and horribleness. He exudes his deceptive, omniscient authoritarian insider with full credibility at least until it comes to torturing Winston. At this point LeValley’s O’Brien becomes touchy-feely to a fault. At best it is akin to those appallingly clichéd TV villains who greasily caress and sing-song at their trussed victims; at worst it harkens to an acting seminar on ”the meaning of touch.” O’Brien does have a physical relationship with Winston, no doubt, and at other times, during a dream sequences, for example, it is nicely realized. But the handling just goes overboard. It would have spoken more to the violation had it been less.

1984
starstarstar
To Oct. 5
Atlas Performing
Arts Center
1333 H St. NE
$10
202-494-3776
www.catalysttheater.com

Laura C. Harris as Winston’s forbidden lover, Julia, is consistent in her characterization of this secret rebel who is more innocent than she realizes. Unfortunately, Harris’ elegant, sensual and sophisticatedly made-up face seems out of place in this world of zero sex, inadequate razors and myriad deprivations. In the book, Julia initially repels Winston with her air of clean living and aggressive purity, but Harris’ version looks polished-sexy right from the get-go, especially in comparison to the bedraggled males. Perhaps she is designed to heighten the sense of sexual deprivation, but such an intended incongruence requires more clarity.

Supporting cast members Ashley Ivey, Ellen Young and Elizabeth H. Richards work hard to fill the corners of this pared-down version of Winston’s life, and to everyone’s great credit they make solid sense as characters even for one who does not know the book. Still, Ivey has a slight tendency to overact while Young needs to settle on an accent for her otherwise interestingly wistful and yet creepy Mrs. Charrington. Andres Talero as Philpot, a true-believer and Winston’s workmate, brings a nicely understated presence to his role and the few fleetingly comedic moments. Finally, James Konicek as the Voice of the Telescreen does a tremendous job of setting and maintaining the evening’s tone.

September is here, so go back to school with a new look at an old hell.

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