Orwell's `1984' in a switched setting

1984 Adapted by Pavel Kohout from the novel by George Orwell. Translated by Jiri Zizka and Michael Landenson. Directed by Mr. Zizka. ``1984'' at the Joyce Theater provides an ordeal for the audience and a stiff workout for the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia. Adapted by Czech playwright Pavel Kohout from the George Orwell classic novel, the Wilma production premi`ered in 1986 and is being offered locally as the third event in the 1987 American Theater Exchange season. As directed by Jiri Zizka from the translation of the Kohout play by Mr. Zizka and Michael Landenson, ``1984'' employs a full range of multimedia effects to evoke the nightmare world of Oceania that Orwell envisioned in 1948.

Zizka has transferred the scene of the tragedy from London to the United States. Although this creates some minor anomalies, the central figure remains Winston Smith (John Shepard), a bureaucrat in the ministry of truth, who seeks to buck the police power of the ultimate totalitarian state.

Smith not only risks thought-police prosecution for his affair with fellow bureaucrat Julia (Frances Fisher). He also makes contact with O'Brien (Evan Thompson), a top official whom Smith mistakenly believes is sympathetic to his liberationist views. The subsequent betrayals lead to the arrest, torture, brainwashing, and psychological destruction of the two lovers.

The Zizka staging simulates the terrifying techniques and technologies - such as omnipresent see-all, hear-all telescreens - with which Big Brother keeps tabs on the populace. Multi-image projections proclaim typical slogans: ``WAR IS PEACE... FREEDOM IS SLAVERY ... IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH....'' The Playbill requires two pages to list telescreen voices, film contributors, and recorded music credits for all this high-tech theatricalism. ``1984'' was designed by Phillip Graneto (junk-bordered setting), Pamela Keech (costumes and wigs), James Leitner (lighting), Adam Wernick and Charles Cohen (sound), Jeffrey S. Brown (scenic projections), Michael Bailey (cinematography), with original music by Adam Wernick.

The extent to which the special effects enhance the human drama of Winston and Julia may be a matter for debate. In the end, the rewards do not entirely equal the demands on audience concentration. While ``1984'' grows increasingly horrifying, it seldom becomes emotionally engaging. Furthermore, granted the difficulties of dramatizing so complex a novel, the adapters could be challenged for omitting such scenes as the poignant encounter between Winston and Julia after their mutual betrayal and subsequent reprogramming. Considering the competition from special effects, Mr. Shepard, Miss Fisher, and Mr. Thompson (O'Brien) do admirably in preserving the individual identities of their roles. The performance as a whole benefits from the high acting level of a large Wilma cast.

In his Afterword to the Signet Classic paperback edition of ``1984,'' Erich Fromm wrote: ``George Orwell's `1984' ... expresses [a mood] of near despair about the future of man, and the warning that unless the course of history changes, men all over the world will lose their most human qualities, will become soulless automatons, and will not even be aware of it.''

Regarding the decision to transport Oceania to New York, Zizka and Landenson state that ``Orwell found an American Oceania quite easy to imagine.'' They quote the novelist as follows: ``In the USA, the phrase ... `100 percent Americanism' is suitable and the qualifying adjective as totalitarian as anyone could wish.''

The adapters find contemporary examples of Orwell's state-created ``Doublethink'' in such phenomena as ``a permanent state of unwinnable war with another superpower; the feverish development of awesome weapons in the name of peace; the word `freedom' used by current religious groups to describe total capitulation to their rigid moral codes; even phrases like `pro-life,' `the free world,' and `freedom fighters,' especially considering some of the countries and groups to which these terms are applied. Like all great art, `1984' offers timeless perceptions about human nature.''

And in 1987, as in 1948 or 1984, audiences are still free to witness and examine, to agree or disagree. The opportunity continues at the Joyce Theater through Aug. 1.

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