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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Tim Robbins and the Actors’ Gang return us to the harrowing events of ‘1984’

“1984" by the Actors’ Gang
Portraying would-be citizen-hero Winston Smith in “1984,” Will Thomas McFadden, center, is interrogated by, from left, Bob Turton, Thomas Szymanski, Lee Margaret Hanson and Hannah Chodos.
(Ashley Randall)

An announcement from Big Brother:

“My fellow citizens! Listen to me! We are under siege! We’re surrounded by forces of evil, evil that would tear down all we’ve built and cover the world with darkness!”

This is the world of George Orwell’s “1984” as brought to life by the Actors’ Gang in Culver City.

It’s a land where the only truths allowed are those espoused by the governing party, where absolute devotion to the party is demanded, and where every public and private space is monitored for signs of waywardness. The public enthusiastically embraces these conditions because the party raises continual alarms about enemies — a way to keep everyone frightened, angry and obedient.

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Orwell’s 1949 novel instills a crushing sense of claustrophobia by packaging all of that into the concept of Big Brother. The Actors’ Gang production, directed by Tim Robbins, maintains that constriction. (The company’s celebrity founding artistic director also performs, although you shouldn’t expect to glimpse him until quite some time into the action.)

In a change from the novel, Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaptation incarcerates the story’s protagonist, the would-be citizen-hero Winston Smith, from the start. The audience sits on all sides of the playing area, hemming him in. Four sneering interrogators also surround him.

The main questioner, however, is heard only through speakers, which creates a sense of omniscience. This intensifies as the voice shifts around the room, compelling Winston and the black-suited interrogators to jerk around to face it.

Video screens occasionally blaze to life with hyperbolic bulletins but, aside from a few stools, no other set is used. Or needed.

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Reading from Winston’s incriminating diary — and enacting bits of it — the assistant interrogators speak in a drone, punctuated by bursts of inflamed emotion. Often used by the Gang, this sort of stylization can be monotonous, but it works in the context of a society where everyone is expected to conform.

Robbins, white-haired and bearded, becomes the essence of all that is Big Brotherly, his patient, ministerial demeanor making him all the more menacing.

“1984" by the Actors’ Gang
Tim Robbins’ mysterious interrogator tries to break through to the resistant Winston, portrayed by Will Thomas McFadden.
(Ashley Randall)

Winston, portrayed by Will Thomas McFadden, is allowed the most realistic expression, which makes him seem at once vulnerable and defiant. He’s not trying to be like the others anymore; he lets his feelings show. He’s insolent. Exasperated. Resigned.

Winston dared to think for himself, a “thoughtcrime” in the parlance of Orwell’s book. Still more dangerously, he fell in love, an excitable emotion outside the party’s control.

The Gang has returned to this story time and again since an initial production in 2006 and has toured the world with it. One sad truth of Orwell’s novel is that, somewhere in the world, some part of it will always feel uncomfortably real.

'1984'
Where: Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, some 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 7

Tickets: $25-$50; Thursdays pay what you can

Info: (310) 838-4264, TheActorsGang.com

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (with intermission)


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