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Cautionary Tales

It's a good year for a little Orwell.




Lookingglass Theatre Company

Animal Farm

Bailiwick Repertory

"I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but . . . something resembling it could arrive," said George Orwell of his 1949 novel 1984. Writing at the dawn of the cold war, Orwell prophesied a totalitarian state at once highly advanced and woefully inefficient, where socialist revolution had turned in upon itself. He'd issued a similar warning in Animal Farm, his 1945 fable about farm animals who overthrow their human master only to become slaves of the pigs. Like 1984 the book was set in England; clearly the message was "it can happen here too."

Orwell was a disillusioned socialist distraught at how the ideals of the Russian Revolution had gone astray. But Animal Farm and 1984--his last books--are much more than satires of Stalinism. They warn, as Christopher Hitchens writes in his introduction to the Orwell-centenary edition of the two novels, of "the lethal temptation to exchange freedom for security: a bargain that invariably ends up with the surrender of both." It's a timely theme now, which is doubtless why two companies have chosen to mount productions based on the books. Lookingglass Theatre is introducing Andrew White's adaptation of 1984 while Bailiwick Repertory is mounting a revival of Sir Peter Hall's 1983 musical version of Animal Farm, first performed by Bailiwick in 1987.

Lookingglass's earnest 1984 tells of drab everyman Winston Smith, a resident of London--now an outpost of the transatlantic empire Oceania, whose mainland is the former United States. Oceania is in a state of constant war with Eurasia and/or Eastasia; alliances change, but the paranoia is permanent. A functionary in the Records Department, Winston works, eats, and sleeps under surveillance by "telescreens" that from time to time broadcast upbeat news from the front, mandatory "exerthenics" fitness sessions, and images of Oceania's ruler, the ever watchful Big Brother. (In the novel Smith alters newspaper reports to adhere to political orthodoxy; in Lookingglass's multimedia staging, he edits video footage for broadcast, removing the doubts expressed by some soldiers about Oceania's occupation of another country.)

A secret enemy of the state, Smith begins an affair with coworker Julia, for whom "sexcrimes"--any intercourse not conducted for the purpose of conceiving children--are acts of defiance. Smith also begins to familiarize himself with the work of Big Brother's archenemy Emmanuel Goldstein, who only appears on video--Oceania's equivalent of Osama bin Laden. It's Goldstein who explains the true purpose of modern warfare, which is to keep the citizenry in line: "The consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival."

When Smith is arrested and sent to the Ministry of Love, he's tortured, terrorized, and brainwashed by the enigmatic O'Brien, who may or may not be Big Brother or Goldstein or both. O'Brien indoctrinates Smith (and us) into the mysteries of Newspeak, the language Orwell invented for his story. Its essence is a reliance on short words and childish catchphrases like "Ignorance Is Strength"--slogans whose utter simplicity negates their absurdity.

By eliminating the complexity of language, the rulers of Oceania seek to reduce not only Smith's capacity for complex thinking but his desire for it. And it's not far from "War Is Peace"--or Orwell's most famous one-liner, Animal Farm's dictum that "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"--to today's cliches: "Read my lips," "Hope is on the way." These are the tactics employed by demagogic dictators, campaign strategists, the military, and advertising copywriters--all those for whom, as O'Brien puts it, "the object of power is power."

Lookingglass's 100-minute 1984--performed without intermission though it's divided into three acts to mirror the book's three parts--is a bleak, somber show whose most interesting elements are its film and video (created by Lookingglass stalwart John Musial and HMS Media). Banks of televisions broadcast images of soothing sunsets and a relentless, emotionless eye. And Smith's dreams and memories--it's unclear, to him and to us, which is which--are projected in grainy black and white on upstage walls. Joshua Horvath and Andre Pluess's nerve-jangling soundscape is a cacophony of sirens, whistles, the whirring of copter blades, and the thudding of distant bombs. The show's visual scheme contrasts shades of gray--Mara Blumenfeld's charcoal-colored unisex overalls, Chris Binder's generally dim lighting of Geoffrey M. Curley's prisonlike set--with blinding white: O'Brien's elegant suit, the glaring fluorescent bulbs illuminating "the place where there is no darkness," as O'Brien calls the Ministry of Love.

The play doesn't capture the book's grit or its suspense. There's no urgency in the relationship between Winston and Julia--their lovemaking looks more like a modern-dance routine than a subversive act. And the interaction between Thomas J. Cox as Winston and Anthony Fleming III as O'Brien lacks the eerie psychosexual dynamic of dominance and submission conveyed by Orwell's book and by the harrowing John Hurt-Richard Burton film. But to his credit, adapter-director White coherently conveys the essence of Orwell's philosophical arguments, thanks in no small part to the authoritative onscreen presence of Mike Nussbaum as Goldstein. This 1984 is a disquieting cautionary exercise in paranoia.

Bailiwick's Animal Farm takes the form of a grim fairy tale: a storyteller reads the introductory narration from an oversize book, the actors affect animal mannerisms and sounds, and the score is peppered with rousing anthems by Richard Peaslee and Adrian Mitchell. The costumes--by Sandy Lazar and mask maker Kate Stransky--are by far the production's most interesting element: crutchlike attachments represent forelegs, and masks indicate long snouts while still revealing the actors' faces. The main problem is the Bailiwick main stage's atrocious acoustics, which the hardworking young cast of powerful singers mistakenly endeavor to overcome with volume rather than crisp enunciation. Director David Zak's traffic management on the sprawling stage is often clunky and, in the battle scenes, confusing.

Yet for viewers in the first couple of rows this might be a worthy introduction to Orwell's story and anthropomorphic characters. We've all known people like Boxer, the horse whose response to every new sign of his leader's corruption and incompetence is to work harder. We've also known folks like the horse Mollie, who willingly returns to enslavement by humans in return for sugar cubes and colored ribbons in her mane.

In Animal Farm and 1984, the characters' dreams of a better life are destroyed by what makes them human: the desire for love and the urge to hate; the instinct to idolize a protector and to demonize an attacker; the need to take pride in one's work and to form bonds of loyalty; the capacity for suffering pain and for inflicting it, for courage and for fear; and most important for Orwell, the dependence on language to comprehend ourselves and the world. These are our strengths as a species, and these are the things that make us vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation by those for whom, in Orwell's words, the object of power is power.


When: Through 11/28: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan

Price: $15-$58

Info: 312-337-0665


When: Through 11/7: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3:30 PM

Where: Bailiwick Repertory, Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont

Price: $25-$30

Info: 773-883-1090

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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